Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sri Lankan journey: how I became a human shield

Almost everything I write here is based on conjecture. If you want to read words that are based on empirical evidence please go elsewhere. There are no photos to accompany this post because the events here happened at night after dark. Even if I had brought my camera my (first) conjecture is that the people and places I saw were sensitive material. Photos might have been distinctly unwelcome. 

I was in the pool in the late afternoon when Janet came running. "Mr. Thavarajah has been looking everywhere for you. He wants to take you someplace!" Last time our amiable host took us on an outing was a few hours over the weekend. He asked me that day to be ready by 11. The tour yesterday came without warning. 

I jumped out of the pool, dried off, and quickly pulled on a tshirt and a pair of shorts. If this tour could be called at the spur of the moment so could my fashion presence. It was hot and humid, the precursor to a stupendous rainfall that was to come later in the middle of the night, as I flip-flopped to the main building where Thavarajah's car was waiting. He was out of sight so Janet ran into the office to find him. Simultaneously his wife and the main desk person came running out, "You're here! Has your wife found you? Mr. Thavurajah has been looking for you all afternoon!" What was brewing? My second conjecture had been to put a few small bills into my pocket. 

Last time Thavarajah had taken us to a large kovil north of town. The owner of this fairly elaborate temple, he told us, had brought with him money from abroad and developed the kovil and its ample grounds from that money. "He's also doing some kind of charity work," Mr. Thavarajah mentioned, "along with all this land he bought. I'm not sure what he's trying to accomplish," was all he offered. A rambling tour through the temple complex, a first-time experience for me, ended with Mr. Thavarajah depositing a bill into the donations box. He's a subtle guy, slight and short on words, and his movements and statements appear deliberate and well-chosen. But he did let it be seen that he was putting in a donation. I followed suit. 

Later he bought some large pumpkins and a few other vegetables at the attached shop, "it's for charity," he mentioned, and he took us next door to the all-veggie restaurant, very clean and very spicy. As we washed our hands he examined, felt, and took a few notes on the metal washup sink. "Isn't it nice," Janet suggested, "he's always looking for ideas for how to improve his place." True, Mr. Thavarajah's slow movements, barely a bit of energy expended or wasted, drew your attention. They drew you in. As I write now I recall them clearly, as insignificant as they seemed at the time. 

After our snack he asked If we minded seeing a small garden his friend was developing down the road. Of course we looked forward to it. On the way down the long road east toward the ocean he noted a large fenced-in area. "Christians and Hindus have united here to build a community for destitute young couples," he explained, without offering details. 

Janet's better than me about pushing for details, saying things I wouldn't think of proffering, things that might be too complex for our interlocutors, too off the topic, or too opinionated. But she gets a response. By contrast I take a quiet ear with me and take what I get. Both approaches work in their own way I suppose. This time, unfortunately, she didn't ask for details. My third conjecture: why would Thavarajah mention the collaboration between Christians and Hindus on this project? What are they uniting for? What might they be uniting against? 

My fourth conjecture, as we moved literally from planting to planting on the new farm-garden, my host explaining, cutting a stem, pointing to a weed, caressing a leaf, all the time instructing, quietly, almost inaudibly, the caretaker for his absentee friend, was that Mr. Thavarajah is someone of consequence in this greater Batticaloa community. His presence means something. His words carry weight. Maybe this is why he can use them quietly, sparingly. 

Last night we found out how many local and national organizations he sits on, consults for, and heads. "You must be a very patient man," I ventured. His smile was subtle but broad. 

Last weekend we were brought back  to the guesthouse unceremoniously. The few words we exchanged over the next few days were friendly. But they said nothing, hinted at nothing we were to encounter yesterday afternoon. 

Into the car we packed ourselves. Me in front at Janet's insistence. The AC was turned way up and I began to question my sartorial choice. 

We drove straight to Kattankudy, the community we had ridden our bikes through the other day. Kattankudy sits about 5 km south of Kallady, the beach community where our guesthouse is located. Thavarajah built and planted this place from scratch in 1979 ("botany was my favorite topic") he once explained, and again after the tsunami in 2004. He had hoped to plant an arboretum. The guesthouse came, he reports, as an afterthought. 

"Kattankudy," he told us, "may be the most densely populated place on Earth. There are 25,000 people here in one square mile." 

"We noticed the big houses on our bike ride here," I added. 

The subtle smile, "they build them large."

"Have you ever been on this road?" he asked as he swung down a wide, mostly unpaved road to the left, motorbikes swooping like swallows. He asked in the same tone of voice he had used during our weekend foray when he asked if we'd ever been inside a Hindu kovil. It was a road we had actually avoided. The intensity of the main road in Kattankudy was more than enough. Following an unpaved road with that much traffic was less than inviting. 

The windows of Thavarajah's vehicle steamed up as we made our way gingerly around puddles, zigzagging past kids on bicycles in the dark, past over-brightly lit take out places. "One thing about our Muslim communities," he said, "they eat outside a lot." Next conjecture: why had he brought us to the heart of Muslim Kattankudy on a rutted, crowded road? And of all the things he could discuss why was he talking about Muslim Sri Lankans and their eating habits?

It followed that we made our way slowly to the beach. About 100 girls in light green full body covering marched past on the muddy road. Thavarajah started talking about conservative Muslim practices, how they are relatively new to the island, partially the product of women working in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East as domestics. He spoke of internal conflict in the Muslim community over conservative vs. relatively less conservative religious values. He spoke of intra-community violence, of big money coming in from the Middle East, of mosques built and torn down. He hinted at coming strife, mentioning that "Muslims are a minority within a minority here in Sri Lanka. They're pampered even more than us Tamils." I had heard similar narratives in every corner of Sri Lanka from many people of different origins. Here I was hearing it from a man who grew up with Muslim schoolmates, who had a lifetime of perspective to go on--a perspective that included a generation-long internecine conflict and natural disaster--and who is active in shaping the communal future of this place. He was voicing concern for the future of Sri Lanka. 

Conjecture: was he voicing real concerns? Were his concerns based on evidence or conjecture? Are 100 people in fundamentalist uniforms (we had seen them last week when we rode down the main road of Kattankudy) a potential army of fundamentalists? Is intra-community violence a precursor of inter-community violence?

When we reached the beach road he seemed surprised that the place we were looking for wasn't there. We rode south a bit looking for a grand mosque he had described. Then he stopped, opened the steamy window, and asked people on two occasions where the mosque was he was looking for. I had the distinct feeling that Mr. Thavurajah was testing the waters. How would people respond when he asked for this place? 

When we reached our destination, the world headquarters of a Sufi sect founded here in Kattankudy we "stepped down" from the car to have a look around. It was about 6:30 but the night seemed much later. The mosque and meditation center, painted white, was strung with gaudy lights giving it an unreal look, something like the takeout places we had passed. In front was a gorgeous verticillate minaret-tower, gleaming white in the night. Right on the beach, the previous minaret had collapsed on the newly built mosque in the tsunami. 

We were greeted at the gate by a government military police guard. Conjecture: why was a military presence required in front of the entrance to what we later were told is the "most secular" of Muslim mosques in town?

Taken in by a sexton who willingly took us through the mosque, showing us which parts were for meditation, showing us the mens' section and the women's section. Taking us to the perfumed, domed room under which the founder, a local bodybuilder and wrestler, and his wife were entombed. The surface of their tombs bore a designed emblem with the kabbah on one side and the dome of the rock in Jerusalem on the other. 

Mr. Thavarajah touched door jambs and finishes just as he had done at the vegetarian restaurant with us. He translated little of the narrative of our loquacious host but let us discover on our own. After a warm handshake with a man and woman of distinction, whose role here was not explained to us, we were taken to the meditation center where a group of men sat. Here Mr. Thavurajah took a bill out of his top pocket and stuffed it down the charity box. I followed suit. 

In Tamil, which was the only language being used except for the recorded "Allah hu akhbar" chant that played for long minutes, Thavarajah was asked his religion. We heard him say Methodist and he heard him say we were from the UK. Conjecture: why not America?Conjecture: why did he not volunteer that our religion is Jewish? 

Conjecture: why did he encourage the sexton to show us the library, whose only contents are the 16 books published by the strongman-founder of this Sufi sect? 

There were multiple copies of the books for reading in the library or for sale. Three were translated into English. I took the opportunity to pick up one edition to read the founder's holy words on world peace, humanism, science, and evolution. His conjecture (or was this holy writ?) as expressed in the book I picked up is that there was only one path to world peace. This path lay far from the precincts of secular knowledge or scientific inquiry. 

To conjecture further might be unnecessary. The message was clear. Thavarajah, one of the leaders of Batticaloa's Christian community, was putting out feelers to the most "liberal" Muslim sect in town, the sect most vulnerable to reprise by its fundamentalist Islamic brethren. The weekend before he had take a foray to the other side of the bookend (or bulwark), Hindu religious charities.  On both occasions but especially this night we were his "human shields." Showing some "British" tourists around was the most innocuous way for him to penetrate Kattankudy's volatile social and religious scene. 

Who can conjecture where this society will go?

As I finished up writing I just got this link from Janet. It may explain something more about our outings with Mr. Thavarajah and the people he's trying to establish some contact  and goodwill with for the future good of his community. This post of mine was based on guesswork. The following article is not conjecture.

1 comment:

  1. Sam, Thanks for this entry. Janet's linked article is chilling. Tension is everywhere, so your blog feels epic. We hope you stay safe to bring home your greater understanding of successful ancient irrigation.