Monday, November 30, 2015

Sri Lankan journey: an afternoon in Moratumulla

My friend Gihan is leaving for London so he asked me to come out to Moratumulla with him. He's been working on a project there for the last couple of years, hiring traditional wood carvers to build boxes for him. His goal seems to be to revive and record the ancient practice of screen-making while "rebranding" the craft into a high-art statement he can market to the London art cognoscenti. It's an interesting concept and certainly the results are beautiful. 

So he came by to pick me up at the guesthouse just a few minutes after Janet and I had gotten home. It was the heat of the day and we'd just had a bit of a wild goose chase trying to find me a Kurta for the Fulbright bash this Friday night. Dress is supposed to be "smart casual" and that means wearing more than a pair of eyeglasses I suppose. We would have been in the pool when he called but all the beds were being replaced in the guesthouse rooms for new ones so there was no way to get beyond our open-air lobby. 

A few friendly-happies between Gihan and Janet (he's about to have twins and ours are all grown up) and we were on our way. 

Moratumulla is a few miles south of Mt. Lavinia where we're staying ("Galkessa," the Singhala name for our community is the word you use if you want to be understood). Moratumulla is adjacent to Moratuwa, the home of Moratuwa University, where I'm discharging my official Fulbright responsibilities. Since I mentioned Galkessa I might as well add that to go to campus on a bus you don't say "university" or "Moratuwa University." "Campus" is universally understood and it works as far away as several miles from the university, even though there are several other types of campus between here and there. Small surprises that make up the pastiche of this experience, linguistically and culturally. 

Moratumulla is a tight-knit settlement of wood carvers that has been around at least since medieval times. It's the center of wood carving in Sri Lanka and its products are quite varied. Mostly unfortunately, beautiful teak timber is converted here into not very beautiful bedroom sets. I wonder of our new beds came from there! But in addition to furniture the carvers produce-- almost mass-produce floral screens. The screens are not gorgeous but they are hand done and they do carry the stamp of an ancient craft that was apparently influenced by the Dutch colonizers. They reflect a mostly European style but one that was fused onto earlier Buddhist patterns. My host showed me a large Vesak lamp that he's been working on that combines both influences. Anyway, as part of the "rebranding" Gihan's vision repurposes the screens and reinterprets their basic design into a contemporary look that appears at a glance as laser-printed. 

I found myself in a sort of carport in front of the carver's house in a crowded neighborhood at the base of a hill. The carport is a garage for his van and his workshop too. 

People here are not poor. But it's hard to read that when you see the outer state of their houses, the crowding, the open gutters and mangy dogs. But it's like Wellawatta. When we mentioned to our fellow Fulbrighters that we'd walked around there the response was "eew-you walked through the slums?!"

Moratumulla is not a slum and neither is Wellawatta. These are deeply historical communities that are part of greater Colombo, and which represent important ethnic and occupational enclaves. There are as a matter of fact a number of churches in Moratumulla and outward signs of Christian beliefs here. Maybe the "carpenter" analogy made these people more or less natural adherents of the colonizers' faith. 

The boxes themselves were not perfect, not the eye candy Gihan has been showing me the past couple of years through his photoshop-generated designs. I'm glad I wasn't there as a buyer. There were imperfect fittings, blemishes in the wood, a door that didn't close, crude hinges. The carvings are perfect as coverings for transoms. They let air into houses. They are decorative. They are mostly placed above eye level in dark places. They have a way to go before they reach the kind of technical perfection that merits gallery space. 

But I didn't say this to Gihan. Why rain on his parade? He was having the panels, which did fit together cleverly, packed and wrapped to take to his parents' house. They won't be shown in London for awhile I think, since he's expecting twins in just a few weeks. 

Life will be different for Gihan but life will go on in here in Moratumulla. The son of our carver, who supposedly will not go into his father's profession, has a remarkable artistic bent. The hours I spent there babbling with the family's baby were also spent with  their seven year old. Gihan fussed with the panels and took video footage. I fussed with the kids. The baby went after my iPhone with a vengeance. The big kids played with plastic toys and showed me their projects. I showed them photos of Boston and of my house and kids, using my puny but growing Singhala vocabulary. 

The afternoon waned. Mosquitoes buzzed. A dog scratched at his thin fur. The car we came in filled up with carved panels. I didn't ask what was happening because I knew. 

A lot of Singhala was spoken. I heard the word "Galkessa" mentioned. A tuktuk pulled up. Gihan gave him a thousand rupees and instructions. We hugged goodbye. And for the hundredth time I wished Gihan good luck and blessed him for a good future with his new twins. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Sri Lankan Journey: How do you delve into the unknown

My Fulbright project is focused on a study of transitional landscapes in a Sri Lankan context. More to the point: I am studying intangible landscape features-sounds, aromas, movement, curves, etc. to develop questions about the urban and rural settings I observe. It's an exercise of delving into the unknown. Everything is based on observation and conjecture. My only "hard facts" are the things I observe, the photos I take, and the recordings I make. Quite a leap of faith for a scientist. Or is it?

The former director of the National Museums of Ceylon, the Cambridge- and Harvard-educated P. E. P. Deraniyagala stated in his article "The Sinhala Sculptor's Science of Joining," that his conclusions in that particular paper were "largely a matter of deduction and conjecture." 

Scientists study the natural world. We develop tools to measure what we observe because often what we observe can't be described through common means. Or we know something is "out there" that we need to find. We may not know what it is or where it is. But our work is to find it. And to describe it. Pretty radical if you think about it. 

Take the work commonly attributed to Watson and Crick. On the shoulders of their many predecessors these scientists elucidated the DNA molecule in order to get at intractable problems of heredity. We still don't know everything about heredity and its role in evolution but we know a lot more than we did in 1953 when the shape and contents of DNA were first brought to light. 

The many scientists who unraveled the mystery of DNA were taking a stab in the dark. They were delving into an unknown where their observations and the tools they developed were the only thing they had to go on. Their work at least in part had to be based on conjecture. Their findings radicalized our understanding of DNA because their task was radical in itself. How do you find and describe something you know almost nothing about?

Consider another scientific model--the cellular membrane model developed by Singer and Nicolson. They knew there were membrane systems in every cell of every living being. Yet the structure and functions of cellular membranes were unknown until their groundbreaking work in 1971. The list goes on in a timeline that precedes "the scientific era" back toward the first toolmakers or the first cultivators. And it zooms into the future with scientific inquiry into energy, space, climate, and of course evolution. Scientists do radical stuff. Human invention is radical stuff. As we change our understanding of the world around us we change how we function in it. Pretty cool. 

In my opinion there are also sidetracks in inquiry that may be less valuable. In my experience as a botanist I found the reductionist focus on phylogeny and cladistics to be a sorry waste of a whole community's resources. Yes we want to understand plant evolution. But nearly all of my peers at the time I was active in plant research insisted that the only way to do it was through phylogenetic analysis of ribosomal molecular structures. I was looking at problems of shape and form, taking a broad view that drew all of its information from the organisms themselves. No "theory" to test. My goal was only to gather data to see how they fit together.  Taking risks in inquiry is the way we move science forward--this is at odds with the way I experienced scientific practice--everyone jumping on the same bandwagon. 

I'm not putting myself at the level of great scientists but yes, I am comparing my work to theirs. I think what I'm doing here in Sri Lanka is radical work. Radically different from what a lot of the rest of the research community is doing here. 

I'm not sure why but there seems to be a huge research focus on politics. You might consider politics, like landscape, to be intangible. But there is a lot a researcher can grab onto. Maybe that's why people study politics in this country that is so full of intangibles. Religion is another area. Certainly it's very important in a Sri Lankan context. But I wonder how and if it holds a key to understanding Sri Lanka. There's a world, or I should say there are worlds here to explore. Let us find them and try to uncover them. Again I take the example of Deraniyagala. In the diagram above he illustrated the way parts of sculptures in this country were joined. Who knows what light this may shed on other topics, for example the sculptural qualities of agricultural implements here. Or the way a channel is dug in the countryside. 

So here's my point. I've been given an awesome opportunity to learn from a place and people of which I had no prior knowledge. The tools I'm using are observation and recording. There are limits to this mode of inquiry and its outcome is perhaps uncertain. But the goal is to open new doors of thought by generating unexpected questions. There are so many ways to explore this world. Why limit ourselves? A radical approach to a radical problem: how do you delve into the unknown?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Sri Lankan journey: Order behind the chaos in Colombo's Wellawatta neighborhood

Ever since I started thinking about the phenomenon of "composure" here in Colombo I've been looking ever more closely at how we can interpret the built environment of "chaotic" cities of South Asia. The other day I wrote about how people in this urban environment are composed. They stay cool, calm, and collected in spite of the heat, noise, and dirt. 

Then I noticed that you can find composure behind the mess of the busiest, grimiest, noisiest streets. In spite of garish, gaudy signage, you see well organized storefronts, places that are carefully arranged for a high volume of activity in small spaces. So, I decided to check out my theory. We had the day off from language lessons and I asked Janet to join me in a walk around Wellawatta, a bustling neighborhood just south of Colombo. 

My goal was to find organization behind the seeming disorganization or, as the title of this post suggests,  order behind the chaos.

We got off the bus at a fairly random stop on Galle Road and just started to saunter. We found ourselves in some kinds of unlikely spaces. For example, a quiet market space of two three-storey structures connected by an overhead ceiling. The relative darkness and gentle breeze moving through the building provided a cool and comfortable respite from the hassles of Galle Road. Even though this space housed lots of shops Janet thought about how well this style of building might lend itself to residential structures in a crowded neighborhood like Wellawatta. 

We encountered narrow lanes with large apartment buildings. Among them were scattered old bungalows with lacy woodwork and shady, picturesque gardens, a vernacular architecture that suggested a quieter, more leisurely past. But the taller apartment houses (one with a large generator in the parking area to keep the elevators running in case of a power failure) also reflected a kind of vernacular style. The proportions of these buildings, their coloration, and the style of their balconies indicated a building style "unencumbered" by architectural conventions. These apartments, like the bungalows among them, were built by their designers and designed by their builders. Not a touch of professional architecture that I could find.

Elsewhere architects have designed much smaller buildings, nicely proportioned and a but pretentious, buildings which they may have conceived as carrying on a "conversation" with the streetscape. Their contrived facades and simple lines are, in their own way more out of place than larger buildings that stand disproportionately on the narrow lanes.

We found ourselves at a narrow bridge crossing a canal, just wide enough for a scooter. A walk halfway across the unromantic bridge was enough. The former village, now an urban enclave on the other side, beckoned. But there was too much to see in the larger city streets. Maybe another time. 

Janet recalled being driven with our friend Dillon, who was in Colombo during Black July in 1983. He explained that it was these streets where pogroms against Tamil residents and shopkeepers were among the highest. Our walks through Paris a few years ago reminded us of the atrocities French citizens committed against their Jewish neighbors--actions taken with barely a finger lifted by the Nazi German occupiers. Important to recall and remember what happened here in Colombo, this seemingly peaceful and now burgeoning city. How was it that people turned against each other with violence and hatred? It seems so uncharacteristic of the people we've encountered here. 

As we made our way through the streets enjoying the sights and scents of stores with Indian products, incense, calendars with Hindu gods, saris and shalwars, we noted fruit stands, fish stands, and lottery sellers. All with their special place along the street or along the side. 

We struggled to read a few signs in Singhala, and in spite of my pervasive despair over slow learning, we realized we had accomplished much in this week of effort and sweat equity. We could recognize some of the letters and sound out words!

I mentioned to Janet my desire to find order behind the chaos and she said, "oh no I let you down. Wrong walk!" "No" I decided. If Galle Road is chaotic these side streets hold another sort of order. Something more bite-size that we can seize upon and begin to interpret. 

Then I stopped dead still and so did Janet. We were next to a shady wall just above a muddy puddle, across the street from what appeared to be an ordinary store--actually a small series of them. Let's just stand here quietly and observe, taking apart the scene and dividing it into smaller parts. 

Several large advertising signs dominated the main store. The next thing we noticed was cases of soda, with empties on top. Pieces of paper with handwritten, "no gas today" were hung among the empties. To their left, blocking the entrance to the store, were two large blue propane canisters. 

We noted the mud and puddles just in front of the store. There had been heavy rain the night before. We also noticed a good deep drainage ditch in front of this store and the stores next to it. The ditch was crossed by well-constructed paths into each store, and clean stairs raised the level of each store well above the road. We counted one piece of litter among three stores. The scene was one of deliberate organization and maintenance of the surroundings. Middle class ladies in saris, young and not so young, walked down the street to the main road with their shopping bags. 

A tuktuk came up to the store with the canisters on its stoop. We watched as the driver swung the empty canisters onto his back seat and rode away. As suspected, a well-run operation, tidy, active, and in tune with its surroundings. 

Wellawatta with its great mix of buildings and street landscapes would make an excellent study area for our students at Moratuwa University. I'm afraid they've seen too little of their own city--its vernacular architecture, its close-knit urban fabric. They need to see Colombo closely I think, before they launch off to other cities in Asia. Let them get perspectives on this fascinating city, its curves, its aromas, its colors, before they start imposing big ideas and clean lines to a built environment they don't fully know. 

I often question the utility of "planning" as we teach it to our students. That goes for design too. We need to observe more closely and respond with meaning. We need to step back from our "good ideas" and question whether we are imposing them on our hapless neighborhoods as though the places were blank spaces waiting for our great plans. 

Order definitely exists within what appears to be chaos. And chaos and disorder my lurk close below the surface of our cleanest line. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sri Lankan journey: some Colombo sketches

Janet asked me if I dream here in a Sri Lankan context and my quick answer was that this place is like a dreamscape while I'm awake. Can't tell if I'm dreaming about it because just our walks and bus rides have felt like a dream. 

Then I realized. Just last night I had a dream about Galle Road. I was going slower and slower in front of each building. And each building became more well proportioned, more softly featured, and more beautiful as I passed it. It was exactly as Janet asked. I was here in the dream. 

But the dream had a connection to my waking time here too. A few days ago in my search for "composure" I started to see Colombo in a new light. Streetscapes that had looked chaotic, dirty, and ugly began to soften and become orderly as I looked at the shop fronts one by one. And last night's bus ride home in the dark rain provided an even nicer perception. Beside being more orderly I started seeing the buildings in a stronger relief. One that reflected their history, construction methods, and materials. 

So if we look past the oversized signage, if we look away from the grime, if we challenge our perceptions, which tend to harden as we look once, twice, ten times, and then stop looking, we can start to see things in a new dimension. I think that is seeing things through the eyes of Sri Lankans. Seeing past the ugly to groove into the lovely. 

That was my bus ride. But then I got off in the rain. The streets were pretty well flooded and I was dressed for a summer afternoon. Shorts and sandals. People here dress much more sturdily for the work day, for sun and for rain, I guess pretty much the way we do at home. I'm definitely not dressing like a Sri Lankan. 

I stood under an awning for a few minutes waiting for the rain to lighten up. It did. A bit. So I decided to walk. It was dark and I was in no hurry. I walked behind a slow procession of two or three umbrellas. As we snaked our way past puddles and potholes the gent in front of me, someone I suppose was in his early 50s, kept slowing down. I could tell he was looking at me out of the corner of his eye. It kept raining. We kept walking. He'd slow down. I'd slow down. Finally he turned around. "Come along with me," he said, as he made room under his umbrella. Characteristic behavior on a rainy Colombo night. A city with hidden beauty in the built environment and the social environment. 

Sri Lankan journey: First day of language lessons

The goal of the Fulbright is cultural and educational exchange. In a place like Colombo it's relatively easy to get around with only English. But how much poorer the experience is without being able to understand the conversations around you. 

Everywhere in Sri Lanka signs are in English. You can start to sound out the letters. But it's so great to be able to start reading. 

Last May when I visited I asked whether Janet and I would be able to take Singhala lessons, which are geared for the English Teaching Assistants (ETAs), I was overjoyed when I was told of course we could sit in. I love languages and I'm super interested in parsing them out. Mostly when we travel I do this in a piecemeal, amateurish, and I have to say slightly pedantic fashion. Poor Janet puts up with it and even humors me. How exciting is it to be here, immersed in Singhala and being taught professionally!

Of course in language learning the ideal is a lot less work than the real. Is our teacher trying to kill us by making us count up to 14? Do I really have to know the word for newspaper when all I have to do is find the one I want once I've identified a newsstand? These are theoretical questions I guess. Because the stuff that turns me on is not what other people may value learning. Dative or generative cases are so cool and the diacritics that modify Singhala letter sounds in 12 different ways are amazing. 

To me another great thing about language learning is learning to recognize similarities among disparate languages. In Singhala it's challenging. Is the word for table "mese" a borrowing from Portuguese or is it the same word as in the Romance languages shared through history and geography by means of a Sanskrit bridge? There are many similar examples but then there are the cool things like "oyate," (to you) where the "t" sound has been retained in both English and Singhala. Other words like "ready" (laesti) must be cognates. For example the Spanish word for ready: listo

So there we have it. The agony and the ecstasy of language learning. As with every other aspect of this amazing Fulbright experience the whole thing is in our hands. Nothing is "required," everything is up to us, and we hold the keys to our success in our own hands. A pretty big responsibility but a great privilege as  well. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A real walk through the real Colombo

We start our Singhala lessons for real tomorrow morning at nine. They're at the place several of the Fulbrighters are staying at, a large colonial place called the Shangri-la Bungalow. Shangri-la is just one town over in Dehiwala, which we pass through every time we're on a bus into town. So I proposed we walk there to check out the scene. Just a quick mention that as Shangri-las go, our place is pretty sweet. 

While so much of Colombo seems stretched out along the Galle Road I'm super interested in what lies east of the main road. Our walks up Templers Road to the Siddulhepa Ayurvedic Hospital, where we've enjoyed a few massages, take us east, but just so far and no farther. Today we made a real foray into the real Colombo. 

To get to the bungalow you could walk north on Galle Road and then turn right at Hill Road, following it practically to the doorstep of the house. I was curious about the hypotenuse of this fairly rigid 90 degree route and dead curious what lay in the precincts between our Mt. Lavinia digs and the bungalow. 

So we set off at about 9:30. A bit late but I was banking on the concept st least that we'd be walking northeast instead of directly east, so there would be some shade. The curving walled streets, sometimes with the occasional overhanging tree did give us some respite from the heat. 

We were able to follow almost all the way through on Pieris Road or lanes that went in that approximate direction. There were ups and downs, plenty of unlabeled roads, and enough chances to consider that we might be lost that it felt like a real walk. We passed one or two spots that were centered around either a market or a Bo tree and Buddhist shrine. These places have their own names and I think it's safe to assume they were once villages on their own. Very cool to get that feeling of history, and the feeling that the city grew outward to the villages, finally swallowing them. 

The streets were vibrant, especially near the shopping areas, and traffic was not that hard to deal with, maybe because it was a Sunday morning. Just the same some of the vehicle mirrors coming my way threatened to smack me into a drainage ditch or onto a barbed wire fence. Not the nicest outcomes for a Sunday stroll. 

Not a lot of bicycles. Not a lot of walkers. But we felt comfortable on foot and managed to see a lot. Local color, local dogs, local city scapes. We passed several canals, some decent sized waterways, factories and plenty of saloons (mens' barbers). I've wanted a haircut and shave (plus facial massage please) for the past couple of days but didn't want to break up the walk with what could have turned into an hour luxuriating. Also didn't want to get treatment too far from home and then walk home the distance and not feel that clean. 

When we had almost reached the bungalow I spied Salmal Mawatha. Amazed, we took several pictures. I had read Ru Freeman's "On Salmal Lane" a few years ago and passed it on on Janet. She passed the book, a child's-eye view of Black July on to a couple of friends. It was a haunting book and unexpectedly reaching the place, fictionalized or not, gave me goose bumps. I've never been a literary tourist before but I guess there's always a first time. 

Finding the kids at home we were able to convey our excitement about finding Salmal Lane and they eagerly took down the name of the book. We'll see if anyone has the time to read it. 

Coming home was a lot quieter and seemed shorter than getting there. It was great seeing the old lanes on Colombo and getting a better feel for Dehiwala. So many people have it as their address. 

It's a Colombo that's somewhat threatened by the upcoming "Megapolis" but I think a piece of the city that will survive intact, in spite of the larger buildings already going in there.