Friday, November 20, 2015

Sri Lankan Journey: Landscape of Composure

The most composed hour here in Colombo is early morning. After that the heat, the noise, the smoke, and the humidity conspire to unravel you. During this most composed hour of the day the nicest thing is to lie still and think. I guess it's the same way at home. But here if you don't get up and get something started everything may fall to wrack and ruin. Which might explain the way Colombo looks, at least at first glance. How much can you accomplish before the day is too thick to move through?

At yesterday's Fulbright session, one of three days we're plucking out of our Sri Lanka experience to get "oriented" after two months here, the most meaningful discussion was about safety and well being for expats here in Sri Lanka. Too bad it was the only session where we discussed anything personal about this experience. To me Sri Lanka appears so intensely social, personal, and beneath the roar, such a tender place. 

One presenter, a former Fulbrighter herself, mentioned that she had never experienced the harassment every American woman complains about here. "How is it possible?" I asked Janet. It didn't take long for her to reply. "She's from New York. She ignores all of it." An amazing response from an amazing New Yorker. "Composure is how she does it," Janet added. And that started us thinking about composure and what that means. 

Travel on a noisy bus or dusty street here in Colombo. Ladies are going about their daily business wearing perfectly clean saris. Not a wrinkle, not a tear. They are composed. They seem to float through the hubbub in a bubble of cleanliness and calm. 

Travel through the burgeoning traffic. You have horns. You have clouds of smoke. You have every kind of engine noise. I have heard that drivers get angry but I have never seen it. People are composed. 

Composure keeps you to yourself and keeps you in a smoothly lubricated interaction with your surroundings. You don't lose your cool. No one else loses their cool. You see something you don't like, you look the other way. You stay cool. Literally here, it's rare to see a person break a sweat. 

Our friend in Batticaloa, Alice Kern, thought she saw a man expose himself on the bridge to Kallady. This doesn't happen. Maybe she saw him pulling up his sarong the way all the men do in the countryside to cool themselves off. It looks lascivious. It has no sexual connotation. I've seen it done hundred times in my presence. 

Thinking about composure led me to examine another "strange" behavior I've seen here. Young men between, say, the ages of 20 and 40, when they get together, giggle. I first became aware of this last May when I was staying in the visitors quarters at Rajarata University. I was taking an afternoon nap and a group of 20 or so Junior lecturers were getting together for lunch and a little horse play. The high pitched giggling lasted for a good hour. I didn't get in my nap but I did start to build and insight. 

Giggling could be a way to maintain composure. It might be a way that social misunderstandings are lubricated to become social workings. It might be a way to deflect or dilute some of the nasty side effects of testosterone. We want to remain composed, we all give a little giggle. 

My friend and colleague Janaka Wijesundara has composed students. He challenges them. He grills them. He questions them. They stand before him unprepared. Except in their composure. Are they ignoring him? They should listen.

Composure means not making too many large movements. A dab of a gent's hankie to the forehead should do. Flagging down a bus seems to be done with the raise of an eyebrow. Faces remain calm. Impassive. Smiling. No loud voices. No big movements. No apologies and no thank-yous. No big deal. 

Stay composed. Keep all your parts together. Enjoy the day. At least on the outside. TV shows give me a glimpse of inner lives that are less composed than what we see on the street. There's shouting and there are tears. There's laughter and flapping about. Maybe that's why these shows are funny. Maybe composure is about appearances to the outside world. Maybe this is why, when I was a little kid, my mom would get me dressed "nicely" before we went downtown. Is the public composure we see in Colombo or other cities in Sri Lanka something we lost in America?

I mentioned before about Colombo "at first glance." Actually many glances later it looks pretty messy. Then yesterday riding the 100 bus into Kolupitiya I was thinking about landscapes of composure. And then I saw it. Taken as a composite, at least along the Galle Road, Colombo appears to be a place that lacks composure. My architect friends might say it lacks urban "coherence," whatever that means. 

But look closer. The micro-environment of every shop and stoop, the intimate place where people sit or lie down or stand or shop, is almost inevitably, at least early in the day, clean and neat. Composure comes from within. It's maintained in the personal space. Many composed spaces and the composed people they host add up to something unexpected. A landscape of composure. 

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