One of the goals of my Fulbright has been to see Sri Lanka through the eyes of Sri Lankans. I'm not sure now if that's possible. There's a simple reason behind my doubt. These past couple of months I've been exploring Sri Lankan landscapes. Physical and intangible landscapes are fair game and I've considered more than my fair share of both. I've also considered the possibility that Sri Lanka is comprised of a fabric of social relations. That is the root of my doubt.
The social nature of Sri Lankan society first became apparent to me when I toured the countryside with my driver-guide Amara last May. As he passed every vehicle within miles of his center of operations in Mihintale he tooted his horn merrily and they tooted back. All the horn blowing was about saying hi and most of it was accompanied by a cheerful wave of the hand. Closer to Mihintale, Amara knew every person and could stop to visit with each. A little farther out of town and he got further from his social base. The fabric of relationships was almost palpable. A more closely woven fabric close to Mihintale and looser cloth farther from home. I considered the possibility that this was a rural phenomenon.
A few weeks ago in Batticaloa a new dimension of this phenomenon emerged. We overheard children with perfect spoken English and I commented to their mother how well they spoke it. "Thank you," she sparkled, "but I'm their grandmother." One thing led to the next and in short order we were invited to dinner. She and her husband turned out to be part of a coterie of past students of Madduma Bandara, who I had just visited a month ago in Anuradhapura. Turns out they also had deep ties with the Fulbright Commission here in Colombo.
Fast forward to yesterday when Janet and I were on the bus on the way to Kolpitiya. At our stop a series of miscalculations led to an unfortunate fall off the still-moving bus. I watched horrified as Janet went to the ground, seemingly in slow motion. The feelings of horror continued through the afternoon even though she was unhurt and barely scraped.
Her fall caused an outcry on the bus. The conductor ran out to make sure she was OK. A fellow passenger got off to check on her. We decided to duck into the first air conditioned store. The passenger followed us. She spent ten minutes talking to Janet just to convince herself that everything was fine.
We slunk into Barefoot and I asked Janet if she thought we should just go relax in the courtyard cafe. Relieved to be sitting down, she agreed. A half hour later as we were finishing our lunch a couple of gents in their 60s from the next table made eye contact. The next minute we were talking and a minute later, that same sparkle in his eye that Janaki had shown me in Batticaloa, our new friend told us about his connection to the Fulbright. Old university pals again. Close social ties.
A couple of weeks ago at the Fulbright orientation I asked our host, Tissa Jayatilaka, whether rural social networks were reiterated here in the city. I cited a couple of examples I'd already experienced--Janaki in the pool (which made his eyes twinkle), and our guesthouse friend Dillon, who took us to his exclusive cricket club here in town for a drink. His answer went a bit beyond what I expected.
Not only were social networks here in town just as tight as in the countryside. His friend Janaki had already called him to say we'd met. It would seem almost no movement goes undetected here in this social web, so efficiently, if not tightly woven.
So where does it leave me in this social landscape? High and dry? Not exactly. The networks that are here will never belong to me. I'm a temporary agent in Sri Lanka. Not like our guesthouse friend Michael who meets a stranger from Australia and establishes commonalities in the third sentence. But I wasn't born here. Didn't go to school here.
The privilege of the Fulbright is to see the social network in action. To see how this society flows, to see how its participants experience a network of relationships, is a glimpse into another kind of life. It's something I can't belong to but no one is hiding from me either. It's more than a component of the landscape. It is the landscape.