Sunday, January 31, 2016

Kosher Butchers: an excerpt

"Kosher Butchers" is an excerpt of my novel about Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." In this area I touch on olfactory memory and start to weave the links between home and holocaust. Specifically in this novel I look at the events of 1938 (Kristallnacht) in juxtaposition with the events in Sri Lanka of 1983, the so-called "Black July" pogroms against Tamil citizens here. Duplicity, fear, violence. These are some of my less than savory themes. But here I am in Sri Lanka, a firsthand witness to this. 


An imagined and distant aroma from the far past. The "Roumanian" butcher on Clark Street in Chicago. Roumanian. A rumor? Had the best pastrami. The salted beef smell. The slightly sliding smell. The smell when you opened the glass door. The tableaux of the glass wall and behind, the Romanian butchers. The Romanian butchers looked fierce. For a shorter time there was another butcher on Devon Avenue, "Hungarian." Hungarian was saltier the place darker the men fiercer. Why would anyone ever name their kosher butchers' after these countries of butchery? Why ever invoke these names again I thought, the fan whirring in a dark solid room in Batticaloa. 

Why not a simple name like Ashkenaz, exotic, seeming eastern though meaning, literally, "west." On the eastern part of Pratt Street in Chicago. Because Ashkenaz didn't stay. After what seemed like a long time it was there. Or maybe not so long. Twenty years? That's a short time. Delis stopped being places where people wanted to eat. They were greasy. They were caloric. They were plebeian. They were ethnic. Not the right kind of ethnic. But you could buy platters from Roumanian or Hungarian I suppose. You could have your platter for a funeral or graduation or something. You could invite family and friends and maybe neighbors. You could use plastic cups. You could throw away the aluminum serving trays with their clear plastic covers. You could stuff the garbage with large multi-ply paper napkins. Is this tweet material? Maybe this is more tweetable in Sri Lanka or other countries where people are curious about how we live in America. 


This short excerpt from my novel about Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet," explores questions of ethnic suppression and subsequent emigration. It references the struggles that Sri Lankan Tamils faced in 1983 as well as the tortures my people experienced in the twin faces of Tsarist and especially Nazi antisemism in the 19th and 20th century, tortures that climaxed in November, 1938 during days of German government-sponsored pogroms against its Jewish citizens. 

More excerpts from "The Longest Tweet" are posted under that title. 



Scientifically, because he was a scientist he could ask, what are the conditions and environmental stresses that a coconut palm faces? Heavy load of fruit on a thin trunk? Heavy load of fruit and fronds on a thin trunk? Heavy load of winds unfelt at the base but strongly perceived at the crown? Strong sun exposure where the fruit and flowers are borne? Poor soil with scarce nutrients and structure unsuitable for heavy weight-bearing trunks that are exposed to wind shear? 

What did the coconut need? Materials and structure that allow the following: maybe you can think of more: Strength. Flexibility. Ability to sway. Support. Strong, well-protected fronds to do the delicate business of photosynthesis while they are potentially cut to shreds in the wind or burnt by the sun? Could you say a coconut tree adapted or was it "just" genetics? Could the morning kovil music every single blessed morning give you hope juice in its silly religious timbres? give you some answers? Could it strengthen you for the day and make you flexible? Could it support you by making you brave? Could it regulate you by waking you up? Could it protect you just by you hearing it the way looking at certain things was said to protect you? By the way what would "protection" be? Could you wear it on your wrist? And back to the kovil music: Was it different if you inherited that music because of your religion than if you inherited it because you were human and you could hear music in all its tones? Who could you ask these questions to? Why would you ask these questions? Whose idea was this? Did you regret being pulled in? This is why he wrote the questions. So people could read them and consider them for themselves. Is this tweetable? Are questions tweetable? Is a bird's tweet a question? Can birds ask questions? If questions are a part of speech that invite lies then what about answers?

Some questions you might want to consider but not ask: What made you decide to emigrate? Why did your parents force you to emigrate? Why didn't your parents leave with you?

You might also ask: What were the psychological factors that went into the the decision to emigrate or not to emigrate? (If you hate psychology please skip this paragraph). Fear? Stubbornness? Inertia? Faith in yourself to survive? Faith in neighbors to protect you? Faith in neighbors to keep on not killing you? Faith in your own ability to hide? Go underground? Escape if you really needed to? Faith in your own ability to make quick decisions based on the way you had made quick decisions in the past? Faith in your ability to make balanced, sane decisions based on your ability to make balanced, sane decisions in the past? Possessions? Language? Religious beliefs? Real estate? Relatives? Guilt? Rumors? Faith in the government to protect you (what is protection again?) Faith in local authorities? Faith in local authorities you had a relationship with? Faith in human nature? Your own poverty? Your profession? Your knowledge of how indispensable you were to your community? Knowledge of how indispensable you were to your profession? Knowledge of how  indispensable you were to your  colleagues? Knowledge of how indispensable you were to the government? Knowledge of how indispensable you were to your orchestra? (This would have to be Germany or Austria or who knows? Maybe there were orchestras in Sri Lanka). Honors you held or hoped you would get? Faith in human nature? Faith in your wealth? Faith that people wouldn't turn on you? That people couldn't turn on you? That rumors of people turning on their friends, colleagues, neighbors were only rumors? 

What if you were old? What if you were young? What if you were married to a person of the other tribe? What if your children were mixed blood tribe people? What if the violence stopped at your border? What if the violence stopped at your town? What if your town was a peaceful place, the kind of place where violence didn't happen? What if the violence would stop at your street? What if the violence would stop at your building? What if the violence would stop at your courtyard? What if the violence would stop on your floor? At your door? What if you had lived in peace with your neighbors? What if your parents had lived here in peace with their neighbors? What if your grandparents had lived here in peace with their neighbors? Did time provide logic? Look on your retirement account prospectus. It says, "Past performance does not always assure future performance." Who ever believes that?

Foundation of Peace

This is a short exerpt from my novel about Sri Lanka, "The Longest Tweet." This section explores peace and how it is expressed, a question that has occupied more and more of my thoughts in Sri Lanka during my Fulbright, especially since I came to Batticaloa. The style in which this was written references, in part, Shakespeare's " The Quality of Mercy."

More excerpts from my novel are posted under the title, "The Longest Tweet."


Foundation of Peace

What is the foundation of peace? Don't tell me prosperity. Don't tell me concrete. Don't tell me power. Power? How is it dealt, measured, apprehended, felt? What are its limits if there is an "it?" Is it in speed or solidity? But how fast? How solid? Where are slownesses and porosities? Are they in the gorgeous fragrance of a papaya flower? A mango flower stomped in mud but still smelling like heaven? The alleged moistness of a Burgher finger sandwich? The French-cafe-like seating area of a small shop near the Batticaloa railway? But these scooters beep past and the musical release from inside is "South Asian," a fuse, a fusion, a doorway to pretend and pretense like the Batticaloa breeze. 

Brooms of plastic color wiggle in the breeze and strips of shampoo packets and snacks sway like any coconut frond. This might be peace. But the falling flowers indicate change, movement, instability. So must peace be static? Can it move and evolve? Is it on a ridge or in a basin? What does it move toward? Is sway a stochastic empirical struggling against the base that attaches it? Is peace organized or is it also a stochasm? Is this railroad terminal findable? Are the depots and electrical substations and nicely paved roads and fish sellers on bicycles with their wood boxes and scales a sign of peace?

What is a "sign?" Is it signal? Is it tweet? Is it more than a noun? Of course. "To sign." To produce a signature. Or to produce letters or words for and among the hearing-impaired. What caused hearing loss in these eastern children? Horrors of war? Parents shot before their eyes? Things they cannot hear or say? Are these signs that stay forever? Will these fierce children bear fierce children? Is fierce the other side of gentle or is it the same side? Do they share a plane? Are they edges of the same line? Are they felt in contrasting modes? Fierce loyalty? Gentle refusal? Furious. Furiously scribbling writing. 

The orphan clause

This is an exerpt from my novel "The Longest Tweet: A Story of Sri Lanka." This short section explores the intense presence of so many children's homes in the East and contemplates the social settings that surround these orphanages.
It references one of the major liturgical sections of the Rosh ha Shana prayer book. It's sad to think about, so if you don't like sad, don't read. More excerpts from the novel are posted under the title "The Longest Tweet."


The Orphan Clause 

More questions that you might not want to ask people personally: You might not want to think about them: you might wonder why a person would ask them: You might regret reading them:

Is it better to end up in an orphanage because your parents were shot or because they were drowned? Is it better to end up in an orphanage because your parents disappeared or because your parents were under suspicion? Is it better to have been brought to the orphanage by your parents or was it better to have been brought by their relatives? Was it better to be brought by villagers because your parents were gone or was it better to wander there yourself because everyone was gone? Was it better to be in the orphanage when you knew where your parents were or was it better to be there when you didn't know where they were? What about your brothers and sisters? Did you know your name when you came to the orphanage? You might add:

Did you and the other children talk about your lives before the orphanage when you were in the orphanage? Did you feel safe in the orphanage? Did you know what was outside the orphanage? Why would you want to ask that? 

Friday, January 29, 2016

What happened in Matale?

Some years ago, not that long ago actually, 2013 to be exact, I attended a series of student presentations following an international conference. The conference was sponsored by a Sri Lankan university that I won't name. The students were graduate candidates of that university. They did their own work but like all students at that university and in this country they were supervised by senior lecturers or tutors. That they were supervised brings a certain seriousness to this note. Someone knows better. Someone knew better. Someone should have known better. There was a responsibility some supervisor should have assumed. Why didn't they? What did they serve by not exerting what they knew to be true, half true, untrue, stupid, vile? 

The student presented a rather hackneyed view of rust belt cities in America. Buffalo, Detroit, Schenectady. His presentation was filtered through cultural eyes into a landscape at once stereotyped and dimly understood. But dim understanding and stereotype go hand and hand down the aisle of, dare I say it? Cultural genocide. 

He invoked "statistics" about a town in central Sri Lanka, north of Kandy. It is called Matale. The first bus ride I ever took in this country was Matale-bound. "What is Matale?" I asked the driver. Or maybe it was the conductor. "Matale is some place," was all they answered. There are many places. 

It was the year of Detroit's shame. Its downfall. Its slithering in the mud of the Great Lakes, racism, "white flight," divestment, capital retreat, economic collapse. The popular topic was picked up by the student, an up and coming city planner, and encouraged by his tutor and maybe by his professor. Maybe they introduced it to him. I've heard so much misnomer here about topics like sprawl, urban decay, and sustainabiliy. Hot topics sell. Matale, he intoned, was like the rust belt. A failed economy, depopulation, empty precincts, burnt-out storefronts. What a strange scenario I began to think, for a pre-post industrial town in Sri Lanka. What really happened in Matale?

People fled, but not the majority. People rioted, but not disgruntled minorities. Businesses closed. But not because of a poor economy. Matale had nothing in common with Schenectady. Matale was a scene of pogroms. My people in Germany were wrenched out of their communities by government-sponsored pogroms. That was 1938. People here were wrenched out of Matale in 1983 by government-sponsored pogroms. People left their businesses, their neighborhoods, and their homes because their lives were at risk. Or lives had been lost. Or lives were threatened. Not just livelihoods. Lives. So. Like they did in Lubeck and Frankfurt and Essen and Munich and wherever they could (most couldn't) people of the wretched hated minority, those who had lived alongside the majority for centuries, those who had been "taught a lesson" or needed to be taught a lesson and would soon, predictably, be taught more, fled. 

That crime, those crimes, were unforgivable. They were noted by history but as my friend Thavarajah, a gentleman of Tamil extraction says, "the winners write history."

So. Without the gold crusted statue of triumphalism you may see in the North, without shouts and screams of conquest, the "winners" of an ethic outrage paint a rotting city, site of pogroms and death, in a vogue popular as it is timely. Matale, much in need of the "planner's" hindsight wisdom, was the victim of postindustrial urban decay. No word word of truth is uttered. The student is applauded. The presentation is accepted and passes with high marks. 

Massacre, degradation, persecution. These are swiped off the academic slate by generalizations, stereotype, and misinformation. Lies become truth as another "planner" or "designer" is cookie-cut from this university, one of a "batch" of eligible candidates, in sequence to the next available government job.  Truth is published in refereed journals. "Findings" are painted in a swath of statistics. I ask my German colleagues who are there with me as an international team of jurors, what they understand about what they just saw. They speak little. Simply, they just forget to come back for the next year's conference. So should I have. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jungle degradation, poverty, and national security. Some hard questions.

By the mid-1980s the world was cognizant of deforestation and its consequences. All kinds of organized behaviors were put into action to stop rainforest destruction and to combat environmental degradation in developing nations. 

Yet those years are exactly the moment that the "Accelerated Mahaweli Project" was put into action here in Sri Lanka, a national initiative that carved out large tracts of native forest, replacing the forest with irrigated agricultural lands that introduced abundant agrochemicals to a formerly pristine-or nearly pristine tropical forest environment. 

Before another word is uttered or written criticizing the Rajapaksa government of its ties with China, let me mention that the massive environmental perturbation caused by the Mahaweli Project was accomplished under an earlier government in partnership with Canadian engineering firms, aided and abetted by the World Bank. That means that our clean green North American partners are as responsible for what happened here as any Sri Lankan government. 

We just came from several days in "Section C" of the Mahaweli Project, an area downstream of of the gigantic Victoria Dam. Some 27,000 poor and landless families were moved into this area, most of them ethnically Sinhalese. Dare I say these desperately poor people were used as pawns in a move to outnumber Tamils in this part of the Eastern Province?

These are old issues I suppose but they resonate still today. As does the beguiling, deliciously humid landscape of Section C, which we spent several days riding bicycles and walking through. That Dehiattkandia, the major town of Section C looks strangely like an Anglo dam town (read Australia, New Zealand or, yes, Canada) provides evidence of its provenance in spite of Sri Lankan touches. It was built in 1986, carved out of the jungle like the rest of the landscape. 

An intimate look around shows that thanks to their hard work, the people of Section C have lifted themselves out of desparate poverty. There are well tended fields, schools full of clean, uniformed children, carefully planted gardens, neat houses, and the usual bicycles and scooter traffic. There are also some huge SUVs, monstrous vehicles we saw pulling into our guesthouse parking area. So some people are getting rich out here. 

There are also many military bases, especially in evidence south of Dehiattkandia. It occurred to me that the road south leading to Badulla, Kandy, and the rest of the country was, in the 1980s, a road that might have needed careful watching. Maybe even defending. 

So how does a small developing country deal with issues of poverty and national security? How did it all play out in this corner of Sri Lanka during the 1980s? How was the environment compromised or recruited as a weapon and by whom? That the LTTE were implacable enemies, even to their own people, is something I think we need to take into account. Yesterday the LTTE took children as soldiers Today Hamas uses the people of Gaza as human shields. How can these behaviors be dealt with? Everyone's humanity is challenged. 

So I listen now with a less jaundiced ear to people's accounts of the former government, to statements that tout the former president as a hero. The violence had to end. But how could it have been stopped? I stop also to think as well of the duplicity of the West, donors, designers, bankers and engineers, who contributed to a massive, coordinated project to "tame" a wild environment. How does this play into the equation? How difficult is this history? How strange is it that a simple Fulbright project undertaken to examine "landscape" leads to all this thought-turmoil. Maybe I should just keep on taking pretty pictures. 

The problems Sri Lanka faced and continues to face seem to get more complex as we move forward into the second half of our Fulbright. No one is asking me for solutions, or for my opinions for that matter. But questions of poverty and terror and their twin conditions, environment and identity, continue to pile up the challenges to my thinking. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

So many strange dead ends, and the "going and coming" clause

love Sri Lanka and its people. But our stay here, especially in relation to my work encounters, has been characterized by so many strange dead ends that it's worth reflecting on. 

The human landscape here is something like a porous geology of underground limestone caves, where a flowing river may disappear and go into the darkest depths. Here a pocket of activity, fierce and energetic one day, may sink into oblivion the next. Plans dissolve. Objectives morph uncontrollably and seeming illogically. People go out the gate into the dark promising to return in five minutes, never to be seen again. The eagerness that was sworn in correspondence turns to laconic indifference. What you may consider to have been "solid" bilateral communication turns out as if it never happened. 

This is not to say people don't pick you up when they say they will. They do. And they pick you up as well if you're in some kind of perceived trouble. If you need help with anything anytime anywhere strangers will rush to your aid. People are caring, sincere, and energetic. Given the situation. They may also be uncaring, false, and flaccid. Maybe it's the same way everywhere in the world?

Why don't I give some examples? I'll keep names and other particulars under wraps. From my ethnocentric perspective it would be deeply embarrassing if someone wrote these things about me. So I'll keep it impersonal. 

After months of correspondence a colleague offered to pick me up someplace so we could start discussions right away that we planned to extend into the next day. Our goal was to map out a strategy for shared activities over the next few months. Pickup occurred as arranged. A great hourlong discussion ensued. The colleague told me he had to go to Kurengala the next day (could 'Kurengala' be code for "I have to opt out?"). I heard from the colleague many times again, always through phone calls, always kind, always asking after Janet. A couple of months later he sent me the annual report of his UNDP-affiliated NGO and asked me to get in touch on his behalf with a foundation in Boston. Naturally, he told me, I would be better equipped to represent his work than he was, since I'm from Boston. Heard from him once more, that he had applied for funding to that organization. We never met face to face after our first visit. 

Another colleague, one who's the same age as the first, a close associate of the first but someone he won't talk to. Again, substantial communications back and forth before I arrived. He promised to go to the field together, which we did, with a van full of colleagues (I footed the bill for the van and group lunch). He got to show off how nicely he converses ("he never talks down to country people," I was told) with illiterate peasants when he asks for directions. Next day I was to prepare a seminar-style lecture for a small group of his top students. Over 100 students showed, the whole "batch." (Incidentally is it only me who finds it strange that university students are referred to as a "batch" the same way as a package of biscuits?) My colleague was nowhere in sight, nor did I ever meet him again. I was told ten minutes before my talk, "we hope your lecture will last a full hour." Next day I was told we would take all hundred undergraduates into the field. I could arrange lunch packets for them or we could bring them back before noon. Luckily we reconsidered after the big man suggested, during one of dozens of furtive phone conversations, that this was the wrong plan to take. 

A third gentleman, about the same age as the other two. Begged, cajoled, harangued me to join him at his charitable foundation in a far corner of the country. Actually this had started the year before when we met briefly. He promised enthusiastically to show me so much of the landscape in his corner of the country, especially the irrigation tanks, which are the focus of my research. After a six hour ride to the empty property (plans had been made weeks before, him insisting that his son would pick us up), he told me "It was fate that we met. You will be the person who helps me figure out what to do with this foundation." Two days later we were on our way back in the opposite direction, another eight hour trip to his ancestral village. Then back again to his deserted property, him scheming how to accommodate a large group of Chinese students to make some extra money. We tweet sometimes and I just tweeted him to ask how things went with his new guests. Last I heard the trip had been postponed. Oh. When we parted ways after many bus rides (it devolved that he was afraid to travel alone on the bus and as for tuktuks insisted on calling "his own driver" instead of risking violent abduction!) he told me, "Drop that Saturday obligation you have at the university. I will call my son and he will drive us places you've never imagined. We'll go out together every weekend!" How happy was I to get on the Matara bus bound for my simple uncluttered existence in Colombo? 

Colombo. A small hot smoky city of huge traffic. From my guesthouse in Mt. Lavinia to the university I was to speak at on the other side of the developing "megapolis" would have taken three or four hours by bus. I had been asked months before to present a plenary speech on the second day of an international conference. All sorts of plans and itineraries were sent, including a conference field trip to the 17th highest waterfall in the country and a visit to the air conditioned Kandy Mall. One small oversight. How was I to get to the conference venue in a suit and tie? When I contacted my enthusiastic organizer with the question she replied, "I'm afraid we don't have arrangements for transporting you to the conference." I had to reply, "Sorry. I won't be able to participate." It's a given. You're a foreign guest and you're presenting a major talk. You're looked after. The plans changed quickly and I was provided rides as necessary. 

For me the most important example is the university I'm most closely associated with here. My first encounter, after a visit in May and several previous visits during conferences, was my colleague asking me to take his graduate students to an historic fort town to work on their research there. "I'll try to come," he told me. But he never showed. A day of complicated pick-ups at many points along the route developed into a day of snacking on short eats at the beach, having a juice, eating an early lunch of rice and curry, a later lunch of rice and fish, a late afternoon stop for hoppers and tea, another stop for tea, and finally drinking arrack. We spent some time at the site but most of the day with these students I'd never met was spent circling the fort with them, on foot, with them in constant contact with one another by phone. Plans were never revealed to me nor did we do any substantive work. It was hours and hours for what I perceived to be nothing. Now that I look back at the time it seems that we did even less than I thought then. Is it wrong to concede that I "wasted my time?" 

And by the morning of the second day one of them was so ill (couldn't tell if it was his leg hurting or a heavy cold or both) that we saw him lying flat on his back in the university van (which came equipped with a driver). My colleague instructed the worried group over the phone to haul the ill student back to Nugegoda before the morning was over. This was (somehow) perceived as a major medical issue. 

A few days later my colleague asked me to meet with the group again at night to check on their progress. He told me again he would try to show. But he wasn't there. And profess? There was none. I though had made an inconvenient bus trip in the dark to a place I didn't know to do as I was asked. We went out for an execrable rice and prawns with sausage in a nearby mall and then I was driven home. 

Two months later during a session the group was going over the same work with the same poorly developed plans, this time using advanced 3-D computer technology to present their "accomplishments."

That day, later, as my colleague and I waited for another student who just didn't bother to show, we had a chance to discuss some of his concerns regarding his career and his childrens' future. I like listening and I like problem solving with friends so I was happy to spend the hour. Strange that in all this time (it was three months by now) Janet and I hadn't been invited to a single social event with this colleague and his wife, who we had treated to dinner and drinks with another colleague when we first arrived in Colombo. Hard for me to understand. Because most people here are hospitable and if the tables were turned I know exactly how a guest to Boston would have been treated, introduced around, invited to collegial events, etc. But everyone has their own personal things going on and everyone has their own personality. 

Speaking of personal things I knew from our discussions that my colleague would like to spend a few weeks visiting the United States and in particular, meeting people in the design program where I teach. I also knew he wanted to do some traveling with his graduate students in Sri Lanka, presumably to broaden their horizons and give them more time in the field here. 

Hard to strategize a visit to the United States given the infrastructure of my organizations but lo and behold, a new colleague (now friend) got in touch with me about joining her students on a several-week project in Batticaloa. I thought she would be an excellent person for my colleague to meet. "I'd love to join you out there," I wrote back, and I have enjoyed the time so far. "And I'd like to put you in touch with my colleague who might bring some students from his program out to participate. I'll put you in touch and the two of you can arrange things. Cc me so I'm in the loop and I can participate too, since I know these students." My colleagues did end up getting in touch and here it is the 27th. My Sri Lankan colleague is scheduled to come out Batticaloa on the 30th. Just one little thing. He hasn't gotten in touch with my American colleague since three weeks ago--or is it a month now-- to make any kind of plans. Nothing. Is he coming? Are his students? Time for me to stop asking and instead focus on what I want to do in Sri Lanka these next four months. It will be wrong to spend another hour at his university. Not the right time in my life either to encourage professionalism in someone who's not present. He's proven himself well. 

So I discussed some of these issues with Janet this morning. Happy to say she engaged me and didn't just say "let go of it," which of course is another way to cope with these strange dead ends. 

Her insights were marvelous. First she invoked the term "Going and coming," which is ever present in Sinhalese but is also part of the Tamil cultural repertoire. Things like relationships or what we do in them  are not linear. They're kind of circular. People go. They come. They're super happy when you come back. We've seen this in so many contexts. So just like people don't like to say no, they don't like to go without a coming back clause. Maybe neither the going nor the coming is that hard and fast, so when we come together in our endeavors it's serious maybe, but not that serious. Just like our going. We don't want to disappear. Just stay out of sight for awhile. And maybe share phone calls back and forth, especially in the days after we (temporarily) part. 

Janet threw this out. Could it be connected to ideas about past lives? Maybe we're not "here" as much as we're passing through, so professional connections, when we look at them in perspective, are valued but not with the emphasis we exercise in the West? And by the way, maybe not such a small concern, how are we expected to act? 

A few things to contemplate. Maybe they seem a bit "out there" but maybe it's all part of how we are immersed in this world and these cultures. It's a place where buses and trains run, bikes can be repaired, food bought, prepared, and served, and ATM machines work. But maybe as longish-term Fulbrighters we're being exposed to a different way of thinking--a way of doing that goes beyond the unreturned phone call or email. It's a place of strange dead ends that you can't let hurt your feelings because the dead ends, like all of us, are always "going and coming."

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

We are here now, not passing through

A few days in a strange humid muddy corner of Sri Lanka just outside the town Dehiattkandia. The place was built in 1986 as part of the Mahweli irrigation and hydroelectric scheme. And maybe it was built as part of a demographic bulwark against the Tamil east of this country. Signs here are all in Sinhalese with just a bit of English. 

When you go into villages or some parts of the road you get the feeling of jungle. Not just the large shady trees. Not just the killer humidity. There's a wildness, maybe from the mountains that are always in view. This is a frontier that was carved out of the jungle and peopled. Or re-peopled. 

We are on crummy bicycles. Janet's back tire is flabbing out and flattening again. I stop in the shade and wait for her. Six gents step out of a shady workshop and inflate her tire. Round a few bends I am waiting for her again in the shade. A younger man in sarama comes up his driveway and we talk. He tells the neighbor lady next door we are from Washington, D.C. What's the difference? "Gama Boston" is inconceivable to him. It must mean Washington. He asks where we're going. His delight is palpable as I tell him "Dehiattkandia." At least that's a real place! He points straight ahead, "Main road," then he points left, "Dehiattkandia." He points right and says, "Polonowurra."

It occurs to me. We are on our way to Dehiattkandia. We are staying in Dehiattkandia. We are not trying to get somewhere else. We are savoring this place, this landscape, this human setting. We are here now, not aiming for another here and another now. This is strange and privileged. We ran into a couple of Europeans yesterday in their stretch pants on fancy bikes. They were headed south, had probably started their day in Polonowurra, passed Dehiattkandia where we met them, and looked forward to another 50 or 100 km of riding until they got to their "destination." We were a few km out of town on crummy bikes and we were part of the landscape. Not just passing through. The privilege of this is that you are living. 

We went far north of our mark today because the road through Dolakanda bends that way. Our first left, which my screen shot of google maps indicated, turned into a mud road from recent rains. Why follow it when there was pavement available over the flat and gently curving terrain?

When shadows were coming consistently from our right instead of in back of us I knew we had been heading north for long enough to make it a potential challenge for Janet on her nearly flat tire bike to get home. So we turned left which led us west and west-southwest. On our ride we passed a monitor on the road and what Janet described as a "giant peacock." A tractor passed me and in Sinhalese the name "Kumar" painted on the back of its wooden cart. 

Flat lands, gently undulating lands, cloudscapes, valleys, fields, and waterways opened in front of us. "This is what people want to do, isn't it?," I asked Janet. "Some," she answered, probably recalling one or two of her patients over the years of her travel medicine practice who were actually seeing the landscape from a bicycle seat. 

But today the feeling of floating was incredible. The real magic of a place with real birds and real grasses and real waterways. We floated south and then west to the bund road of a small tank, the vistas nearby to another tank heartbreaking, dreamlike. Was the catchment of this tank, so nearby, a remnant of the first forest here, or has all that jungle been chopped and the land regrown? Did it matter? The tank in front of us and to our left were our "aim" today. We had overshot them by a good 5-10 km and landed back right where we belonged. 

Next we floated along an unpaved canal road that merged with the main road and led back into town. 

Being comfortable wherever you are

Part of the Fulbright challenge is getting out of your comfort zone. For me this means finding a way to build new modalities of "comfort" wherever you are. This is doubly the case because of my research here in cultural landscape ecology. It forces me (well, it lures me) into the field, into strange and seemingly isolated (they turn out to be densely peopled) places, places that seem outlandish and a bit uncomfortable at first or even second glance. 

And by "comfortable" I don't mean hot showers or spic 'n span hotel rooms. I mean places that make you feel you've stepped off the bus into a Martian landscape. 

Fast forward to Dehiattkandia, where we decided to spend a few days exploring the engineered landscape of the Mahaveli Project, a giant nation-building exercise of 20th century Sri Lanka. 

In what was once a jungle the government built Dehiattkandia in what turns out to be an ongoing social experiment. The experiment seems to have gone alright in some ways and horribly afoul in others, especially when it comes to ethnic tensions it created or at least exacerbated. 

But this aside I wanted to walk through some of the streets of town and get a feel for the layout and fabric of the place. As a foreigner I'm sure there's so much that passes me by. But just the same. 

Yesterday I wrote about the broad thoroughfares and spacious traffic circles of town, nearly deserted by vehicular traffic. Why do I feel like I'm somewhere in deepest Bulgaria?

The airy, deliberately designed bus stand seems busy but mired in huge puddles after last night's rains, the "boutiques" across from it with their assorted, colorful, useless wares. 

The same-age market buildings, decentralized and flanked by greenery, with sensible awnings that extend across the sidewalk to shelter from sun and rain.

The public open spaces, shady and green. A planner's delight, unused by the barefoot public, sarong-wearing and betel-spitting, or zipping by on scooters or congregating in front of "cool spots" or phone repair stores. 

Evidence all around of the massive influence of the Mahaveli Project, down to the street signs denoting precincts with engineered names like "Nagaswewa."

An engineered urban landscape designed to serve the engineered rural landscapes that surround it. A secret look into a relict of the 20th century stuck like a raisin into the scone of the Sri Lankan countryside. 

Why waste time here feeling uncomfortable, as outlandish as I must seem to others, as strange as I look walking and not riding, as inscrutable as I appear, a pale outsider who doesn't know where he's going. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

An invented landscape in a far corner of Sri Lanka

We arrived in Dehiattkandia at around noon, about three hours after we left Batticaloa. We had had the brainstorm of an idea to catch a bus on the main road that stopped right at Kallady village where our guesthouse is located. That way we didn't have to walk all the way to Trinco Road. It had rained hard at night and this morning in between clouds the sun was hot and the air humid. It looked like the heavy rain could continue any moment. Why not stay close to home grab a ride? It worked. 

The bus sped us west toward Manampitiya and our only inconvenience is that we were dropped in the center of town instead of a km east where the southbound junction for Dehiattkandia was. We saw it go past in kind of a blur and by the time a minute or two had passed we were in Manampitiya center, which is not saying much. Manampitiya's not that impressive. 

Our 1 km walk uphill to the junction east of town was mostly rainy and with traffic, not the most pleasant. Tuktuk drivers kept stopping alongside and one offered to take us to Dehiattkandia, a  Rs 55 bus ride, for 2000 rupees. Manampitiya is close to Polonowurra, one of the top tourist destinations in Sri Lanka, and the closer you get to these kind of places the worse the pressure and tension between foreigners and locals. Or to put it more fairly, the closer you are to tourist centers the more likely you are to be targeted as a potential "customer."

We had chosen Dehiattkandia partly because it's far from the tourist zones but also because it's situated among a number of small tanks. I suspected that these small tanks might be associated with the Mahaveli irrigation and hydroelectric scheme, a massive project Sri Lanka initiated in the 1960s during its struggle for self-sufficiency. The Mahaveli project ended with a number of unintended (or perhaps intentional) consequences, chief among them increased disharmony between the Tamil people in this region and the Sinhalese who were encouraged to move to this area and did so in their numbers. This changed the ethnic demography of the region just east of the Mahaveli Ganga (River) to a majority Sinhalese area. This might be looked at one of two ways (or maybe both). The project was an advance in development and nation-building in post colonial Sri Lanka. Another interpretation is that the new Sinhalese communities (like Ampara, Dehiattkandia, Welikanda and many others) were formed as a bulwark against the Tamil-majority East. I think both truths are there. But the latter is more profound. It led in part to the thirty years' civil war. And it may never be resolved. 

I've seen with my own eyes how this has played out. And given the very negative consequences of this second alternative, which is ugly in many ways, I am nevertheless dead curious how this imposed Sinhalese landscape was imagined and carried out. Given my research interest in tank landscapes I'm especially drawn to the question of how irrigation systems were used to exert hegemony. Even more interesting to me is how they were designed and executed--how they became part of an imagined or re-imagined landscape, and that's what today's afternoon walk was about. 

The hourlong ride to Dehiattkandia from the Manampitiya junction put us in a different world. Gentle Sinhala music accompanied the swaying bus filled with well-fed mothers and young children. The undulating green landscape though not built up did not look particularly poor. We had left the frenetic, sometimes bone-poor east behind. 

Dehiattkandia town reminded me of irrigation-hydro towns I've seen elsewhere, for example in Australia or New Zealand. A bustling town center, a few administrative buildings, banks, traffic roundabouts, and most notably a wide divided road in the center of town. Much like other development towns I've seen, the irony of the planned-out traffic circles and divided roads is highlighted by the fact of very little traffic. Today in Dehiattkandia I saw a handful of private vehicles, if that many. And the roads just a few meters outside of the center were rutted, broken, littered, and in a significant state of disrepair. 

Dehittikandiya had a uniquely Sri Lankan feel, especially in and around the bus station, where at least 100 kids were loitering. Some older, some younger, most with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon at the end of tuition classes. Those kids spilled into the otherwise empty streets, making the main road headed northeast out of town look more like a teenage pedestrian promenade than a highway. 

Another thing we noticed on the bus to Dehiattkandia and as well in the town was the preponderance of same-age people. We had seen this in Ampara too, where overall people seemed a bit younger. But here in Dehiattkandia there was again the feeling of an engineered community, a place people of a certain age had been encouraged to move during certain years, people who had since borne children or maybe grandchildren in a kind of uniform progression of ages as the years wore on. If young couples were encouraged to move to Dehiattkandia in the '60s and '70s the young people we saw today might have been their grandchildren. Certainly there is good business in weddings here. Our guesthouse banquet hall still had decorations from a wedding that had taken place just a few days before. Also, all five of the TV stations were playing Buddhist religious programming when we tuned in during the afternoon. 

Problematic Dehiattkandia. We decided to walk a km north of our guesthouse, which sits another 1 km north of the town center. At approximately the 2 km mark we came to a bund road to our left. Bund roads are typical enough for village tanks in Sri Lanka and here in Dehiattkandia, which was planned for typicality, the bund road is a must. This countryside was designed to look, sound, taste and smell like the "real thing." A Rajarata landscape comes to mind. With 30,000 small tanks in Sri Lanka, most of them ancient, and a great many of them in the North Central Province, the designers of this landscape had plenty of models to work on. 

Shortly after entering the bund road we came to an unusual sluice, separate from the bund and acting more as a controlled spillway, into which water flowed under the road  and then northbound in a neat canal. 

After this, a steep drop of more than one meter in the road and a wide spillway at this level, out of which no water was flowing. The tank itself seemed neither high nor low but covered with water hyacinths, not a good sign of tank health but rather a symptom of eutrophication. Agrochemicals are rife in Sri Lanka and this was a hint of their use here in this corner of the country. 

Most of the ancient tanks I've seen have one or two spillways. It would be interesting to learn more of how this modern tank was conceptualized with two spillway-type sluices, both independent of the bund, rather than the in-the-bund sluices that typically distribute water to the rice fields below. 

In this tank, as in the modern tank I saw near Giritale a few weeks ago, the escaping water was not used to directly irrigate the fields below. Rather, it was carried downstream elsewhere, to irrigate crops in some other spot as deemed necessary, part of a regional, not local scheme of water distribution and irrigation. 

Perhaps the designers of this modern system took their cue from ancient "cascade" systems in which a series of tanks flow slowly one into the other in a subtly demarcated, naturally-mediated, and low-impact flow through nearly level terrain. Maybe they were inspired by the miles-long Yoda Ela, the giant ancient canal through which water drops at the rate if about an inch per mile. But there is no cascade here and these canals are swiftly flowing. Instead a very widely implemented series of concretized, uniformly wide canals connects water with need and in some places, tank with tank. 

Some other cues were taken from ancient tanks here, put into practice and perhaps enforced legally. Specifically the kattakaduwa, a vegetated natural reserve just below the bund, was part of this tank design. Bizarrely, the naturally-occurring kattakaduwa area of ancient tanks filters water for distribution to the rice fields. But the cosmetic kattakaduwa here is part of a tank scenery, not a functional component of the landscape because water is leaving this tank in a different way. 

The bizarreness is increased on the far side of the bund road where another false sluice (just a spillway whose flow can be controlled) empties into another canal. 

We decided to follow the canal along a very scenic path. On one side were rice fields interspersed with groves of bananas. A Rajarata landscape transplanted here to the Mahaveli Valley. To our left a linear village, each homestead equipped with steps down to the water or its own concretized washing stone, ubiquitous symbols of Dry Zone tanks that are institutionalized here and included as part of the communal infrastructure. 

Also imported to these canal zones are the kinds of angles and curves usually found in Rajarata-style tanks (it's Sinhalese Rajarata where tank culture--Sri Lanka's "hydraulic civilization" reached its zenith and highest density of development. There are places there with on tank per square kilometer). In addition to angles and curves, the same kinds of slots and grooves that I observed in Rajarata have been concretized here. So where ancient tank flow might have been controlled by the placement of a plank of wood between slotted stones, here the design is recruited but I think not for control. That would likely be done upstream as deemed fit by central irrigation bureaus and their engineers. 

Amazingly, the junctures at which water flows here are carefully catalogued and labelled. This is a kind of echo of the epigraphy of ancient tanks, in which ancient or mediaeval Sinhalese script would tell the story of a tank's benefactor and other features of the tank's history. 

Overall this is a chilling scene of a landscape imagined elsewhere and brought to bear in a new place. Is it a "Sinhalese" landscape imposed on a non-Sinhalese place? In many respects yes. Yet I wonder who the designers were and who were the engineers, who painstakingly collected design artifacts from ancient tanks and brought them to bear here. How were these tank features understood and designed by modern engineers? Which policies and guidelines directed their work and where are these documented? 

What is fake and what is real? Is something imposed fifty years ago still a scar? Can we see anywhere else a large-scale imposition of one cultural landscape on another? Is this scene unique to Sri Lanka or are its particulars alone the unique part? 

All thoughts to ponder as we grabbed a banana leaf to cover our heads for the oncoming rain and sat out the worst of the downpour in a fish monger's roadside shed--his cutting stump well worn, the smell of fish from the selling table strong, and fish scales littering the earth floor where we took shelter.  

The engineered landscape of Nagaswewa

walked to a tank south of town in a precinct called Nagaswewa. There were some twists and turns walking through Dehiattkandia, crossing the main road, going across a bridge that traversed a large canal where I saw a crocodile a few feet from people washing their clothes, then intuiting the curves according to google map. 

I used an observation we'd made a few weeks ago. When you get to some very narrow roads that fork or turn and google maps only shows one, follow the road built from concrete pavers. These indicate  some level of government project and you know these roads (sometimes barely wider than a sidewalk) "go" somewhere. 

The tank was visible from about a km uphill, just at the clearing after a rambling cluster of homes. Pristine looking in its valley among fields of paddy and bananas, mountains on either side, you become aware that this place was carved out of jungle. 

In fact, after some research I discovered it was carved in the mid 1980s. Dehiattkandia itself was built in 1986. The people brought here or induced to move here, according to my guesthouse host, were dirt poor. They were given small plots of land that the government soon discovered was not enough and the holdings were doubled. How people have kept the jungle from encroaching speaks to their will and stamina. 

An old man, probably my age, stops alongside me on his bicycle. We exchange a few words and he invited me to hop on back. I tell him "yannava tikak ballanava," ("I'm walking and just looking a little") and he smiles a big grin, points to the fields, says ("padi")--stress on the second syllable, not "paddy" the way we pronounce it, and rides off. 

There's a lot of traffic, scooters and tuktuks and bicycles. Of course no one's on foot but of course I'm a foreigner, foreign and strange, so it's OK for me to walk. Near the tank two men are negotiating how to get 20 or so king coconuts onto a scooter. Later I see them being sold in town. I ask them the name of the tank as they eye me curiously. "Nagaswewa," they intone. "Naga's tank." Another invented name invoking ancient mythology but very much a contemporary tank of the late 20th century. 

No sluice is visible. Only a spillway on distal end. An allee of kumbuk trees tells us how much they grow over 50 years. 

This is the first time I've thought about the idea of landscape engineering vs landscape design. This is an engineered landscape, in some ways like our Western cities. But our cities didn't grow from a government initiative. Even where they are strictly designed, like the grid pattern of streets in Manhattan, the city grew enmeshed in the design but also beyond the design. Here the contrivances seem so obvious. Animal watches in the fields are built sturdily with tile roofs. They are part of the engineered scheme for this landscape, with an infrastructure built to address, if not completely serve, the needs of it's inhabitants. Even the sounds of deep water flow in water management junctures along the road provide the sound of sluices and bisotewuka in ancient tanks. 

A tractor lumbers by, taking up most of the road. I retreat slightly into the tall grass where I get bug bites and pieces of seed on me. The husband drives and his wife rides in back. More scooters. I come to the far end of the bund road to an engineered dpi which turns out to be the spillway and sole outlet of water for this tank. It's deep and my feet are sore so I turn around, back along the hot road but a much shorter-seeming return. 

Across the canal onto one of the main roads leading into and out of town I come to a shortcut to my hotel, "Nature Lanka." I pass the ponsala built in the late 80s and an alms room in front just finished in 2014. When I get to the hotel my toes are bloody from scraped skin but they don't hurt. My host is horrified by the way I look and maybe terrified by the blood, which is really only superficial. I don't think I reassure him enough. 

After a six-curry dinner later that night, much much more than we can eat, I am called to the outside table where the owner is drinking whisky with his younger brother and two friends. We have the requisite adoption ceremony where they hug and tell me how honored they are. That we are the first Americans ever to stay in this place, and a professor to boot. One of the friends has two children at Moratuwa. He is overjoyed. They are mostly tipsy and promise to take us to see elephants tomorrow. We are wedged between two national parks. 

I feel at home and at ease in this new landscape and among these new people, who call me a "simple" man and praise my teeth. Two are false it tell them and they praise my truthfulness. I have the tiniest sip of whisky and turn down the opportunity to eat a second supper with them. It's been a complete day. 

A less than auspicious bicycle ride that could have ended up much worse

Coming to Dehiattkandia in what might have seemed a kind of random move has actually accomplished something great for me. It changed my conception of Sri Lanka by making it smaller. The no-mans-land east of the Mahaveli Ganga is much better defined than it was before. You might think of Dehiattkandia as a backwater but instead it feels like just over the hill lie Badulla, Kandy, and the rest of the country. 

We learned this in part today on a ride south of town. We were aiming for a couple of tanks. Ended up seeing one from a distance, but also got the feel for traffic headed south toward points more populated. What we ended up seeing is pretty much the side journey of our day. So I'll tell you how things unfolded. 

I asked yesterday morning for bicycles for today. The guesthouse we're in advertises them as one of the things you can do here (there isn't much else to keep you busy believe me) but there weren't any bikes to be seen on our first day. He was very obliging and bikes appeared late yesterday afternoon. "This one's for you," he pointed to a garish road bike, "and this one," with a sort of flourish, "is for the Madame." In the dim light of early evening Janet's assigned bike looked the better and it made me happy. Why put her on a terrible bike when she's being such a good sport holed up here in the Alaska-like countryside (tropical though) while we look at fake tanks?

This morning was a different story. We hopped on the bikes after breakfast under a dingy, humid sky and took off southward toward Dehiattkandia town. By the time we reached the main road we'd discovered that Janet's seat was ridiculously low and we turned around for some serious adjustments. Changing the height of the seat I realized that one tire was flat and the other flabby and low, so the boy who was helping us was ordered to take the bike into town by tuktuk. 

As he started the uncooperative motor of the three wheeler going the manager stuffed Janet's bicycle-to-be into the back seat. Front wheel first probably wasn't the best way to fit the bike in. The back third of the bike was sticking out the door and the manager went in to find tools to remove the far panel. That way the bike could stick out a little bit on both sides. 

Though it's never appropriate here to lend a hand as an honored guest, especially an older one, no one said I couldn't get into the tuktuk. So I climbed into the back, snaked my way around the bike wheels and chain, and then pulled on the bike and used my weight as a counterbalance. The bike was still a third of the way out but with a slow drive through the incredibly pitted streets into town there was a chance it wouldn't fall out and hopefully no one would be injured in this little experiment. 

It makes me think. Being and behaving here in Sri Lanka demands different standards of "dignity" than we're used to. Leaning back in a tuktuk using your weight to hold on to a bike for dear life isn't such a biggie. And like every other time you pass a pair of eyes, people only look at you for an instant. 

The manager had given the boy something like Rs 150. It probably was less. And so we rambled on the rutted road up to a repair shop in a muddy alley in the center of town. What an interesting place. The bike repair shop was filled with wheels, at least as far as I could see, and probably lots more behind. It was about big enough to fit the mechanic and a small table, a few steps above the alley on a covered concrete platform. Like every other space in Dehiattkandia it was built according to plan when the town was erected in 1986 as part of the Mahaveli scheme. What a contrast from our bike repair stores at home where thousands and thousands of dollars' worth of bikes and accessories are on display. 

The funny valves of Janet's wheels needed to be removed, spat on, rubbed clean, and when that didn't work, taken into the shop for some kind of treatment. The pump, uneasily balanced over muddy , betel-stained concrete pavers, didn't work efficiently. The boy and the mechanic, both barefoot, had a go at it and a few words were spoken. Then the mechanic took a small piece of rag from an old sarong, just a few cm square, and put it between the valve and the hand pump nozzle. With some work the tires were both inflated and I told the boy I'd ride back home, less than ten minutes up the road. 

Did I mention indignity? As I stood watching the unfolding drama of inflation I had some visitors. The past two days I've been walking around in wet sandals and small bloody points have developed at the top of all my toes. I've written about this but the wifi at my place is too weak to send the past few posts, which include pictures (not of the toes!). Anyway flies started to land on the raw spots, at one point a bunch of flies on each foot. Kind of gross but I couldn't do much about it  because I was holding the bike by the handlebars, using the brakes to keep the bike stable for my comrades' struggles. 

Yes. Handlebars. When I started the ride on my bike I noticed that the brakes were high above the handlebars. I wrestled them southward to where they belonged and much later in the ride discovered they were under the handlebars, unreachable. This led to the discovery that the handlebar itself was loose. Very loose. So when I needed to steer on back roads (the ride south out of town had been smooth and relatively straight on a well-graded road with decent shoulders for bike riding) it was as if I had tremors. Couldn't control the bike, nor could I brake and control. So things felt like a real mess. Did I keep my balance? Yes. Did I maintain composure? Yes again, though with effort. Don't take a shaky bike down a muddy hill with silty water of unknown depth below on the causeway. 

Our ride brought home to us how this area was carved out of jungle. Kind of like what you'd expect in Amazonia I suppose. Intense humidity all around and not much of a breeze. Traffic was a breeze though, and lots of people were happy to say good morning and hello. A nice smiling ride. 

The views were few, the military posts many and large. It brought home again how militarized this part of the island is, how we are in a perceived borderland, and perhaps how tenuous peace is here. It's a Sinhalese place in what was once a Tamil-majority region. We passed only one spot for Hindu offerings at the roadside, a large Ganesh on display but not a fully developed kovil, and the single church we saw, St. Mary's, was near the very end of our ride. 

Below lie the tank we were after, the entry to it muddy and inhabited by cattle, later a large herd of deer. We had ridden around the back side of the tank so going down would have meant encountering the catchment, which would be wet after the recent rainy days. 

We agreed to head for home, a nice downward ride that we had both perceived coming would be uphill. Town was muggy and muddy as we approached and I thought to myself how if you could make yourself comfortable in a place like this, full of unreadable landscape signals, you could succeed at doing this anywhere. The sky darkened as we approached our guest house, where we shared a delicious one liter bottle of soda water. Within a few minutes it was showering and an hour later the rain was pouring down. Our ride could have turned out a lot worse. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Planting peace, not a straight line

It sounds as trite as "sprouting peace" but bear with me please. The idea is in line with my recent post on using design methods to build peace. Looking around at the world I've landed in, Sri Lanka, a country ostensibly at peace, appears to be a slowly cooking cauldron of hatred. And if the violence is not overt and physical there seem nevertheless to be many other forms. A lot like our society in the United States. But also different. After all in our country there are mass shootings almost every day. If you think it puzzles Americans of good will imagine how people here perceive what's going on in our country. 

Last post I tried to think broadly about how design principles might be adopted to designing peace. Considering your users, iterative process, and under-designing were the three principles I invoked. 

Hidden within "iterative" was the concept of non-linear process. And therein was a little piece of inspiration. 

Here in Batticaloa it's time to plant the new crop. Thai Pongol, the holiday of harvest and sun worship, is over. New plants are being put into the ground. Seeds are sprouting. I was asked yesterday if this is also the time of planting back home in Boston. "Just five months from now, once the ground is unfrozen."

But speaking of sprouting seeds, have you ever noticed how things come up ever so crookedly? Almost never in a straight line. I thought of this in conjunction with a comment by my friend  Pathytharan Kumaralingm, who lives up in Jaffna. Pathy introduced me to the design principles of vasthu, something I was sadly ignorant of before. Some of the things Pathy told me, and I need to study up on this a whole lot more before I go to Jaipur, which was built entirely on principles of vasthu, is that the materials you use in building are of the essence. Other things like orientation of walls and water features are also important. But one of the most lasting comments Pathy made, while his fellow students were busy, furiously over-designing an urban space, was "why don't we just plant a seed and watch what it does? It will grow the way it has to."

Pathy was speaking from more than opinion. And what he contributed to that overheated discussion was nothing trite. He was addressing a design question from a philosophy that's rooted in more than 4000 years of human experience. 

As a botanist I'm convinced that we humans have co-evolved with plants for most of our existence. And I'm not just referring to post-Neolithic events in which humans learned to domesticate and cultivate plants. I'm going way back to our first bipedal ancestors and before. What did we observe in nature? How did we come to an understanding of how things grow? What did we learn? I'm sure the principles of vasthu are rooted here. And though they wear the ancient-modern cloak of Hindu beliefs, I think they are universal in time and space. 

So what can we learn from Pathy's comment? Certainly, observing plants and plant growth is a good place to start. And while young plants grow toward the light (and downward in equal measure toward nutrients and water), they do it in a non-linear fashion, in fits and starts, in bends and spirals. But inevitably they grow. 

What else can we learn? The materiality of plants is basic: cellulose molecules arranged in a few basic patterns with an array of variations. How can we play upon those variations as we design peace?

Plants are process as well. Their metabolism, like ours, is based on input and output, another principle of vasthu. They are, like humans, polar organisms with a "top" and a "bottom." This lies deep in their (and our) DNA. But this does not absolutely define us. A leaf is not necessarily polar. It has other dimensions as well, both on the exterior and inside. Nor is the chloroplast, the machinery of photosynthesis, entirely regular in its conformation. 

Plants are flexible and plastic. They bend, expand, sprout and contract according to the needs they sense. This is part of their non-linearity. They are "programmed" by DNA to grow according to their form but they are also programmed to respond to variations in light, water, temperature, and texture of their environment. 

As plants have evolved so can peace. Something to think about. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Endless pocket of need

We were surprised today--quite surprised, when the lady at the front desk asked Janet whether we'd be able to give money to the school where her sister works. "They spent more than one lakh (Rs 100,000 ) on school supplies in December and now they need help paying it back." "But Mr. Thavarajah introduced us to Sister Helen last week and we bought all the kids notebooks and backpacks and art supplies." "That's a different place," she said. "The girls' home you went to is an orphanage. This is a school. And every one of them is Christian." (Does it make a difference--especially to us--the only non-Christian white people for miles around? Maybe the only ones on the island?).  

She proceeded to open her smart phone and show Janet photos and videos of the Christmas pageant, the children costumed and dancing and her brother-in-law cavorting like a Sri Lankan Santa Claus. Why did Thavarajah take us to the orphanage, Janet wondered. Didn't he know this was the place she was talking about last week when she mentioned her conversation with the front desk person?

Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. Maybe he knows about this school and maybe he ignores it. Maybe he misunderstood because Janet did, and mentioned "orphanage" because that was her best understanding. Whatever. The need is endless. Several hundred dollars' of school supplies poured into one cause doesn't fill the need of the next. It's a pocket that won't fill. And just as we suspected in the first place, throwing money at it won't fix it. And incidentally it's lovely to make the orphans happy with Santa costumes but what about the money they knew they'd need for the required notebooks? (Janet says she'd like to introduce loose leaf paper. Come on. Don't you remember the stupid trapper-keepers we had to buy for our kids each year? And how useless they were?). 

The endless pocket is a sign of systemic dysfunction. It reminds me of a visit I paid to my dentist a few years ago. An innocent cleaning. His assistant, Kenisha, was poking around in my mouth when she found a pocket where calcium from the tooth was draining into a gum that was disintegrating. There was a half inch hole that would only keep growing. A kind of cascade of rot. No cause was found. The tooth had to be pulled and I had an ugly gaping hole for a year. I think it was about systemic dysfunction in my work life. A horrible dean and a confused chairman, professional poison in a constant flow, no way out that I could see. Maybe I was grinding the teeth. But I was wearing a night guard! I was so upset I asked my doctor If something else might be going on. Was I losing bone mass in other parts of my body? Amazingly an X-ray and bone mass imaging were taken, mistaken with someone else's, and I was misdiagnosed with osteoporosis. A difficult year it was until the mistake was traced and the hole filled. 

Among the indignities was a stupid "expert" at one of our leading hospitals in Boston who spent about three minutes with me and insisted that if only I took massive amounts of vitamin D I'd be cured. I felt like I was in a whirlpool quicksand of quacks and idiocy and bad intentions and good intentions gone bad. It was ugly. 

So here I am in far eastern Sri Lanka. The needs are wrenching. The solutions are inadequate. A perverse system of international handouts and outlandish ideas that are supposed to provide solutions has evolved to fill an endless pocket of need, a society rotting from within as the result of a cruel civil war, terror and repression, ongoing ethnic and religious tension, widespread mental illness, and unimaginable natural disaster. It's a world of quacks and cheats and corruption. Wish I could say it was a pretty place. 

There is no end to the hole of need. It seems sometimes the mutual hates are overwhelming, and I wish it were as easy as microsurgery and installing a beautiful fake porcelain tooth. 

Some notes to family, friends, and fellow Fulbrighters

J--thank you for your note. I've had a chance to do so much here. Janet has been a great travel companion and game for anything. 

Next week we'll study small tanks east of the Mahaveli Oya around the towns Manampitiya, Sewanapitiya, and Welikanda. I visited Welikanda last week and by chance the president was there speaking right as I got off the bus. I was pretty freaked out about the whole scene there (not the president but as an aside you might want to see his 1-yr commemorative music video-it's a hoot) and here's what I wrote my post for that day:

I'm trying to write every day and I'm pretty amazed by the value of the activity as well as the response. In December there were over 16,000 hits. 

I'm curious whether we'll find the same "garrison" type conditions in Manampitiya and Sewanapitiya as I saw in Welikanda. I had read a few lines somewhere about the Mahaveli Project and it's ethnic implications but walking through the terrain is a chilling experience. These days I'm staying in Batticaloa. I have a gracious and well-educated host who is also a community leader. And getting the story of the past 30 years from his standpoint is jaw-dropping. 

Your mission of capacity-building in the universities is so valuable. I 
wonder what you found out in your sessions. I perceive here that our goals for students are much different than here in Sri Lanka. Where we take "broadening horizons" as a kind of bottom line for our students I have not perceived that as anywhere in the cosmos of goals here. I'm only running on evidence from what I've seen. Your perspective may be deeper so I hope you'll tell me your reflections.  

There's a RISD prof, Lily Herman here in Batticaloa. She's brought a group of students to do a 3-week exercise with locals. They're staying at the American Ceylon Mission and working at the St. John's Boys Home. Bringing the RISD approach to teaching (which it turns out I developed in my own classrooms at BU) is a tall order but way interesting to see how she's implementing it. 


A bunch of expat Tamils from all over the world. Some have told me stories of their exile and it's incredibly poignant. Most have kids that grew up speaking English and at least the ones here are affluent and successful way beyond ppl here. But it's very sad. One person told me I speak great English considering that I'm jewish. It was hard for him to grasp that my grandparents came to America! So the world that we perceive as stable, more or less static, etc exists I think only for a small portion of the worlds population. Pretty crazy I think. Also struggling with questions of ethnic hatred which are so pronounced here among everyone. Whoa!!! Our little world of just avoiding the ppl you don't like is turned on its head here. I was with Thavarajah and again he was pulled over. Third time in a week!!!! Police presence mixes up everyone's mind. I started to he under some kind of surveillance??? What kind of operative might he be or have been? And HE jokingly (kind of) said "they're pulling me over because they see your white face and they want to check on the CIA operative who's in the car with me!)!!!!!!! So can you imagine what life must be like in a police state? Or how it felt in Russia or Germany in the 30s? Or China for that matter???? So many things are turned on their head for me and I'm an old guy who's pretty well grounded in experience and knowledge of history. But it just goes to show.....surprising to me how all this goes beyond the surface questions that Jose presented in twelve reasons why he'd never come back to Sri Lanka. The twelve reasons are actually like a litany of plagues. Hatred. Jealousy. Mistrust. Violence. Etc. I've been writing about it in my blog and it gets heavier and more depressing as you go so finally I wrote a little piece tongue in cheek about using design principles to create peace. Who knows???


Janet and I will go into the interior near Polonowurra where we were with Julia. There are a bunch of tanks there I want to explore. Then we'll come back to Batticaloa. My colleague is supposed to bring students here on the 30th & I want to be here for the Sri Lankans and Americans getting together. I have a sneaking suspicion he won't come bc I'm starting to understand that there's a different concept of "opportunity" here. We want our students to broaden their horizons. Students here are expected to pass through and sit at a desk. 


Middle of the night I was thinking about informants and information. Wonder what you've been thinking.

Did I tell you already (sorry if me repeat self) about how everyone I talk to has their like 10-12 amazing things to say about tanks. There's lots of overlap but occasionally I get a bit of something new.

But even with the new stuff there's just so far I can go. And so a lot I have to piece together thoughts from how I interpret the material culture.

So in 2013 I was on top of this rock in Mihintale ("birthplace of Buddhism" in this country) and I looked down at dozens of stupas. Could see all the way to Anuradhapura and my immediate thought was--these stupas indicate ownership. They are a symbol and a tool of hegemony here.

So even like when you took us to the ponsala here in Batticaloa the other day. That place is so much an outpost of Buddhism. In my interpretation part of "staking their claim." And I've seen it in so many other places here.

So i never thought about this as a landscape of hegemony (or hegemonies) but it's so apparent here in the east (but even in Colombo). And besides for the Buddhist assertion of hegemony there's the whole issue of land and occupancy. I am dead curious about what you sense from your peeps in Kattankudy.

But in terms of tanks I got to thinking, what if they were built initially as a way of pre-Buddhist settlers "staking their claim" against the "Yakas." You could even think of the tank as a kind of lawn like they had in England by castles...a clear space across which you could see your enemies approaching. And you could get in a few boats surrounded by water and food if your aboriginal neighbors came up attack or pillage. (Or if Indian invaders came for that matter).

So later the tanks became used for irrigation and this whole narrative of "tank-village-ponsala" got built. But I'm wanting to look past that narrative and imagine an earlier landscape and how tanks played a role in that.

So part of the strangeness of that endeavor is it's about reading beyond what ppl tell me and piecing ideas together just from observing the contemporary landscape--like the way contemporary tanks have been constructed in the Mahaveli region as a way of staking a Sinhala claim on what was Tamil land.

Chilling and interesting. Would love to hear your thoughts about "how can we interpret things from the visual evidence we gather?"