Thursday, October 8, 2015

Many Sri Lankan Hands and: Fingers First!

A few years ago I read a post by Malinda Seneviratne, through which we ultimately became acquainted, that extolled the work of many hands in the building of irrigation systems in ancient Sri Lanka. These words have been stated by other people at other times for example by my friend the scholar-architect Anura Ratnavibhushana, whom I hope to see in a few weeks at the International Conference on Cities, People, and Places sponsored by Moratuwa University in Colombo. The concept of many hands working in conjunction reverberates with me. Though it might be a bit on the romantic side I think it does tell us something about Sri Lankan life and society, at least the way I see it as a foreigner. It also suggests some contrasts in the way we live in our respective worlds.  

My second day in Sri Lanka we went with my patient friend Gihan Karunaratne to Colombo's sprawling, multi-story "Majestic City" to unlock our phones (a kind of ambush against capitalist occupiers who have made us think we can only use a single server). Part of the unlocking process was to put a new SIM card in the phones.

To get the SIMs I was taken from the third floor by one of the technicians from the large hole in the wall "Active Mobile," the place Gihan had introduced to us, to a small hole in the wall place in the basement of Majestic City. Down there I saw for the first time the act of "reloading," something I hadn't imagined. On the counter right by the door of this tiny place, in which at least three guys were stumping full time with all kinds of customer demands from photocopying to laminating to buying SIM cards, people came in and punched out their nine-digit code numbers (I would soon be the proud owner of one myself--it's called a "telephone number"). Each gentleman (it was usually men) or each family who came in used the same black box ("Proudly made in Sri Lanka" with a Kuranagela address) and walked out with the same intangible but vial thing: a reload. And so, in this instance, many hands joined together in building a system of mobile communication in a country where that seems to be the main mode of getting in touch. 

If you think this is a small or irrelevant thing for a foreigner to observe please reconsider. "Servers" in our country are partitioned so that the "plan" I get in my part of Boston isn't available elsewhere in the metro area. The bills for unlimited data are sky-high (ours is a "bargain" at about USD 60 per user--a total of more than $200 per month for our household of three), and aside from the nicest people I have ever talked to on the other side of the line (I mean it--they are great) my connection with my "server" is anonymous and atomized. I plug in. I pay. All done electronically. 

Yes we may say that this is a signal occupation of an advanced society. It's not bad in and of itself. But it is not the same act I've seen here in Sri Lanka. And if small acts make the landscape of performance I can say with assuredness: our landscape is qualitatively different from yours. 

And what are American hands doing at other times? In Boston where I live public transportation is utilized at a much higher rate than in the rest of the United States. Trains and buses are packed, much like you see in Colombo, but users are still a tiny minority compared to the vast number of people who drive in to the city, in to work alone in their vehicles. I understand that this is the aspirational future of Sri Lankans too. But it means something different to have your hands on the steering wheel (or in your nose---have you ever looked to see what people do in stopped traffic?) instead of on the railing of a bus or the straps of a train. "Cleaner" and quieter perhaps but also way more isolated. Sri Lankan hands are traveling to work together. There is some sharing here that you may not like all the time. But it is a sharing. 

I'm impressed by another aspect of shared life in Sri Lanka. After the meal people go to a washup sink. The soap bar is inevitably a soft glob of cleansing material. Everyone touches the same bar and everyone gets clean. It's part of a shared ritual that joins people in a way that's unknown in the United States, outside of one's own home. 

Lastly I want to mention the amazing students at Rajarata University who accompanied us into the field last week. They literally joined hands, together among themselves and with us as well, to probe, measure, calculate, and record everything from soil samples to interviews with villagers in the Dry Zone. After the hard work we did together, led by my comrade-in-arms and good-humored colleague Dr. Nimal Abeysingha, (and another day by the venerable Professor Madduma Bandara) we sat together at a long table, lunch packets in front of us, and tucked into our meal, fingers first!

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