Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Sri Lankan human geography

 The East Coast of Sri Lanka holds every kind of mystery for me. The strangeness of its architecture, the varied dress of its people, the way four or five religions are tightly packed together under one language in such a small space. In North American cities we're used to one kind of diversity or another (at least it's true in Cambridge, Mass, where we live) but the kind of densely diverse rural diversity you see here in Sri Lanka has a different kind of flavor. 

It's strange I think to see a lineup of kovils, then a town like Kattankudy with its mosques and prominent Islamic symbols. Peppered among these both lie churches of various denominations and over here on the East Coast, ever so rarely, a Buddhist shrine or temple. 

The people reflect this diversity in their garb, hair, and comportment. I wonder if the many colors of sarongs worn by the men connote differences in belief, ethnicity, or personal horoscopes. Among the Muslim men you may see someone (usually middle aged or older guys) in a sarong, in shorts (among the younger set but not exclusively), long pants, and all ages may be seen wearing white flowing robes, sporting a beard and particular headgear. The women wear saris in all the communities, though there may be differences in fashion I just haven't picked up. And among the Muslim women a range of covering. 

People may travel together, like the group of eight or so women traveling from one kovil to another today on Devali. Or they may travel singly. But the way it looks to me, people like to stick together. Janet and I thought nothing of traveling in separate seats so we could each have a window. By contrast, whole families smushed into one or two seats together, babies clinging onto their adoring parents, four tiny children munching on fried gram cakes. Parents kissing their babies on the lips. 

How does this togetherness translate to a human landscape? Does it help define the way communities organize themselves? Does it reflect itself in the built environment? Is what we see as a diverse set of communities as the bus rushes along the main road actually a landscape of tightly defined hegemonies?

The question occurs at many levels. We might consider the precincts of villages that are lined along the road as small-scale hegemonies where one religious group or another occupies a defined area or group of houses. But is this so? I don't have evidence for it. Only supposition based on the religious buildings I observed. 

But what about the larger scale? We had planned a trip to Maha Oya, expecting to catch a bus to Badulla and hopping off at our destination. We got to the bus stand at about 9:30, right between the Badulla buses that were scheduled to leave at 6 AM and 1 PM. 

No sense in waiting, and we decided arbitrarily to grab a bus to Ampara, about 40 km away, with a required change in Kalmunai. Great. We could catch a glance of Kalmunai, where I had been slated to speak at a now-postponed conference I couldn't attend, and we could explore someplace new. Buses left for Kalmunai every 15 minutes so we hopped right onto one and took off. 

The arrival in Kalmunai, dusty, dirty, crowded and noisy, was exactly as I remembered it. We both felt relief that the week we had planned to spend here didn't materialize. Waiting for a bus to Ampara we moved off the rutted bus stand onto a modern building that straddled a sharp corner like the keel of a ship.   

Nothing to do but look in the window at the exotic cosmetics. Tomato soap, oil- (not alcohol-) based perfumes manufactured in the Middle East. My impression of Kalmunai had been that it was a predominantly Muslim town. Not so as I found out from our hotel manager, whose family is there. And the ride in revealed lots of kovils and even churches. Again. Diversity. 

Leaving Kalmunai you follow the coast south for awhile and them move westward into extensive rice fields. Huge irrigation pipes run along the road and elsewhere. The fields are an expanse and every one is quite large. Machinery is everywhere along with power wires above. The scene is one of a contemporary disturbed landscape and you wonder when these changes came about. What was it about this area that encouraged them? All the old certainly has not been lost. Oxcarts are still plentiful here and they seem to outnumber cars. 

The slow uphill climb to Ampara. A gaggle of boys come on dressed differently from the kids we've seen in the east. They're not talking much among themselves so I can't tell what their language is. But I suspect they are Singhala. 

The other night we heard about how the Ampara District had been settled with Singhala-speaking people and carved out as distinct from the Eastern Province, of which it's part. A bit of nation-building, a bit of Singhala nationalism, a bit of gerrymandering, a bit of a bulwark against the Tamil majority of the East. Not the prettiest picture. 

Ampara was incredibly hot as we got off the bus at 12:30. The bus stand is an amazing barn-like structure with a high tiled roof. Shops and stands fill it and concrete benches are cool to the touch but grubby so you don't want to touch them or anything else. Around the bus stand old fashioned betel sellers and a curd seller, his clay pots wrapped in newspaper. Outside the dense shade and activity of the bus stand building, blazing heat. 

Everywhere signs in Singhala and not a trace of Tamil. Here people push together too in the Sri Lankan way but here you hear only Singhala. Droves of young people in their teens suggest that Ampara was settled at a certain time by a certain class of people--just my guess--I have nothing to corroborate it. But like a single-species single-age pine forest that emerges after a fire, there was a same-age, same-look structure to Ampara that suggested a single impulse of response. Here the response might have been, "build an ethnic bulwark." Replete with AC shopping mall. Has to be some reason to live here. 

So, another added dimension to the human geography of Sri Lanka. The distinctly separate societies of Kalmunai and Ampara, both part of the same Sri Lankan society. Buses traverse the road between them many times a day. On our bus the music was Singhala, something we haven't heard in a few weeks here in the East. 

What do people think as they cross the sun-blasted rice field frontier between these cities, between these worlds. Are there thoughts? Is there discomfort? Is there a consciousness of tension or unease? Or do I, as a foreigner, read these feelings into the human landscape?

Kalmunai and Ampara. Neither a go-to place. But good to have gone. A glimpse, a glance into what I've always thought of as a sad corner of Sri Lanka. Another look at the complex human fabric of this complex country. 

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